Saturday, June 6, 2015

Appalling failure in children's services

The phone messages went unretrieved for months, accumulating in a voice mailbox at the Verona office of Child Protective Services.
When they finally were discovered, staffers didn't follow up on any of the messages left by people calling a number reserved for reports of child abuse and neglect.
Instead, as the Staunton News Leader reported, a staff member listened to a few, deleted them, and then deleted the rest - in all, more than 200 messages - without listening to them.
Augusta County officials learned of the action in October, and county and social services officials have told the newspaper that corrective actions - including a letter in the employment file of a supervisor who permitted a worker to delete the messages - were taken. The director of the Shenandoah Valley Department of Social Services has announced she's leaving this summer for a similar position in Orange County.
The episode, which went undisclosed to the public until the News Leader's report this month, presents an outrageous breach of trust and a colossal failure for a department that exists to protect children from violence and neglect.
A spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police confirmed that the Bureau of Criminal Investigation's Appomattox field office is reviewing a request from Augusta County's chief prosecutor to investigate whether any laws related to receipt or review of messages were broken.
Such a criminal investigation may be a longshot, at least in terms of holding anyone accountable.
And, beyond the local department's boundaries, there appears little recourse for the public. Local social services departments enjoy great autonomy, despite receiving substantial funding from the state.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe has asked state social services officials to look into the matter and to determine during a broader review whether more policies and procedures need to be changed beyond what was done in response to the News Leader's report, a spokesman said.
That's an inadequate level of oversight, and it falls woefully short of providing the accountability made necessary by the amount of money funneled annually to local social services departments.
This year, more than $400 million - about a quarter of it from Virginia's general fund - will flow to those local offices, which draw even more funds directly from their respective municipalities.
Three years ago, it took the death of a child in foster care to produce overdue change in Virginia Beach's social services department. The state conducted an extensive review of the department and, in 2012, two years after Braxton Taylor's death, issued a damning report that detailed terrible morale and ineffectual leadership, spurring Beach officials to take serious action.
Some officials in municipalities served by the Shenandoah Valley department, however, appear insufficiently concerned about the gravity of their department's failures.
As the News Leader reported, "Staunton Deputy City Manager Steve Rosenberg, who this year serves as the head of the DSS board, took... the news organization to task for sensationalism, saying that it's not possible to know what was in the voice mails since they were wiped from the CPS voice mail system."
Of course, that's the point.
Nobody knows what information the callers tried to provide to staff members charged with looking out for society's most vulnerable.
Nobody knows how many children might have been affected, or how many callers called again, or how many simply gave up.
It is a horrifying failure, compounded by opacity and the absence of a mechanism that assures the public that the error won't be repeated.

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