The director of the Fresno County Department of Social Services believes that sweeping changes have been made in Child Protective Services since the tragic death of Seth Ireland, a 10-year-old boy whose abuse went unnoticed by the department eight years ago.
The changes did not result from the Ireland case, however. Rather, they are the result of state requirements and a new Social Services director.
Delfino Neira took over Social Services in September 2014. Since then, the department has rebuilt its policy goals with grant-funded help from outside agencies, as well as revamped its process for more timely reporting of problems seen in families the county is working to help.
The Child Welfare Division also added 22 social workers – the first new hires since before the recession hit in 2008. Two of these are federally funded supervisors who work year-round on quality assurance reports, the same internal investigation that showed a lack of action in 2008 by social workers in the Ireland case.
It’s very difficult to discern the truth during times of crisis in these kids’ lives.
Delfino Neira, director of the Fresno County Department of Social Services
In 2008, county social workers received several calls reporting the physical and mental abuse of Ireland and his three younger siblings. Seth died on Jan. 6, 2009, after he was beaten by his mother’s boyfriend, Lebaron Vaughn, who is serving a 15 years-to-life sentence for the crime. Seth’s mother, Rena Ireland, is serving a six-year sentence for her role in the abuse.
The county has since been embroiled in a legal battle with Seth’s father, Joseph Hudson. A jury initially found the county liable for $5.5 million in damages, but that verdict was thrown out in appeal. A new trial is looming.
Neira wasn’t around back then. Before taking over in Fresno County, he spent 24 years as a social worker and supervisor in Kern and Santa Barbara counties.
“The (child welfare) industry is always looking to do better,” he said. “It’s a difficult world full of complicated cases. It’s very difficult to discern the truth during times of crisis in these kids’ lives.”
To help with this, the county receives grants and outside coaching from nonprofits like the Stuart Foundation, a Bay Area organization geared toward improving early education and child development.
49The number of unfilled vacancies in the Child Welfare Division of the Fresno County Department of Social Services
Outside agencies help test the county’s social work model, which emphasizes direct engagement with families to provide a safe environment for children.
However, the Child Welfare Division still struggles with staffing and funding, Neira said.
The number of cases per social worker is still too high, he said. The 245 social workers currently employed are not enough to handle the thousands of cases referred each year. The department has 45 staff vacancies. On average, the division has 2,600 open cases at any given time. The employees investigate an average of 635 allegations per month.
All county social work cases are entered into a state database. That database shows an increase in caseload since Seth Ireland’s death. In 2008, there were about 66 cases per 1,000 children in Fresno County. It is now about 72.
The critical Seth Ireland report notes that case workers failed to keep timely records. Although no firm rule exists to counter this, Neira said that social workers are asked to update the database within 24 hours of each new development in a case.
The department also is struggling to recruit employees with a master’s degree in social work. Neira hopes to fill his ranks with at least 50 percent of social workers having master’s degrees, but that is a tall order due to a statewide shortage of qualified graduates.
Two of his latest hires with master’s degrees now oversee the quality analysis reviews of cases. Federal funding pays the salaries for these two supervisors, who will spend each year reviewing Fresno County cases at random. A new state law requires them to do at least 46 random reviews. The county has opted to do 100.
“Prior to 2013, there were no state requirements for QAs,” Neira said. “They took social workers from the field and made them do these reviews. They really weren’t consistent, either.”
245The number of social workers currently working in child welfare
The reviewers now do follow-up interviews with witnesses, children and social workers involved in the audited cases. In the past, the reviews only required social workers to look at written case notes.
The first round of these new reviews is still being conducted. Neira expects to have results sometime before June.
The state has oversight over county child welfare services, but California Department of Social Services spokesman Michael Weston said the policing of individual social workers and their cases falls on the county. The state will only intervene if a clear pattern of dysfunction emerges.
These QA reports should show if any changes are needed.
The next step for Neira? Asking for more child welfare funding from county, state and federal officials.
“Even with the new hires, we had way too many cases,” he said. “We need more social workers. The county population, the number of investigations – it all justifies it.”