Despite calling it “a humanitarian issue,” Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese said he doesn’t want to assign blame for the county’s failure to answer thousands of calls to the local child abuse hotline—the public’s first point of contact with welfare services.
“We’re on notice,” said Cortese at a hearing on the issue last week. “We need to move quickly because there are pure humanitarian issues here and that’s the bottom line. Let’s get the remedy in place quickly.”
But he refused to point fingers.
“I understand very clearly people are working very hard and we’re steering clear of assigning blame or anything like that today,” Cortese said.
The hotline did improve its answer rate from 50 percent to 80 percent, according to Bruce Wagstaff, head of the Santa Clara County’s Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS), which runs the call center. That’s still not high enough, he admits.
“We want 100 percent of the calls answered and we will get there as soon as we can,” Wagstaff told the Finance and Government Operations Committee, which decided to discuss the issue at the first Board of Supervisors meeting in December.
The lack of responsiveness at the call center was first criticized in a county-ordered audit released last month. The report also found that the DFCS repeatedly left children for longer than a day at a 24-hour emergency shelter, in violation of state law, because it had trouble finding a home to place them.
Wagstaff chalked up the problems to staffing shortages and, like Cortese, repeatedly said that he doesn’t want to blame his employees. The department went through a 25 percent staffing reduction since 2009, leaving it with 550 employees. The county is trying to hire new social workers, but the process is complicated and the positions hard to fill. In the meantime, he’s adjusted employee hours and transferred some workers to respond to calls during peak hours.
At the same time, Wagstaff said, state and federal requirements have been made more stringent. The county sold its long-term children’s shelter and switched to a placement model that required social workers to find children a home quickly instead of keeping them in the county’s charge. The new Receiving, Assessment and Intake Center, a temporary site at the MediPlex on East Santa Clara Street, lies in a crime-addled neighborhood, where prostitution and drug deals are an everyday occurrence. The county wants to find a site for a permanent receiving center, but that may not happen for a few more years.
Cortese said the county should deal with the staffing issue sooner—next month—rather than in January, during the midyear budget adjustments.
“I think the question becomes how fast can we get the staffing in place before another kid, you know, or kids’ issues falls through the cracks and don’t get responded to [or], I hate to put it that way, slip through the cracks,” he said.
After years of budget cuts, the welfare agency will see additional funding soon, thanks to foster care “realignment” reform enacted by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011, Wagstaff said. That should help fill some of the vacant social worker positions.