Kaley has shown up at school wearing the same clothes for five days in a row. She looks dirty and keeps falling asleep during class. Lisa’s teacher has seen enough and makes a call to the Stanislaus County Community Services Agency — Child Welfare Services office.
Mrs. Martinez is making a batch of her famous tamales and runs out of onion. She runs next door to see if her neighbor, Sheila, might be able to spare one or two. When Sheila opens the door a strong smell of marijuana penetrates the air and Mrs. Martinez can see open pill bottles on the coffee table where 2-year-old Max is playing.
As soon as she returns home, Mrs. Martinez decides to call the child abuse hotline and report what she’s seen.
Jacob can’t keep the secret anymore. At dinner he tells his parents what his best friend Reece told him just two days ago — Reece’s stepfather is coming into his room at night and making him do things he knows isn’t right.
Jacob’s parents immediately call the police and report the suspected sexual abuse.
These are the types of calls the Stanislaus County Community Services Agency — Child Welfare office receives daily; in fact, the agency receives about 50 reports of abuse every day.
In 2010, the agency received at total of 9,511 reports of child abuse — in 2,127 of those cases some form of abuse was substantiated.
Every report that comes into the child welfare office is investigated by a social worker.
“A social worker talks with the caller and does a risk assessment on what factors are going on in the home and what types of abuse are suspected,” said child welfare manager Christine Soeth.
Soeth said they also check the family history and will call doctors or other service providers for more information. The social worker then determines what type of response is warranted.
“There are two types of responses,” said Soeth. “An immediate response, which means there’s a high likelihood of the child being injured or abused again. In those cases there is a two-hour response time. The second is a 10-day response. The social workers then need to make contact within 10 days.”
Many of reports that come in, however, do not warrant a visit from the child welfare office.
“A lot of the times the family just needs to know where they can go to get food from a food bank or clothes from a clothes closet, or they are challenged with their 7-year old’s behavior,” said Soeth.
In those cases, the child welfare office refers the family to one or more of the network of community providers that offer drug rehabilitation programs, parenting classes or help finding food and housing assistance.
But in about half of the cases — 5,971 in 2010 —a social worker visits the home to investigate a claim of child abuse.
“Our first priority is child safety,” said Soeth. “Are they safe? This changes with age. What is safe for a 16-month old is different than a 16-year old.”
The social worker assigned to the case then fills out a risk assessment to determine if there is evidence of abuse. If there is evidence of abuse, then the child welfare office obtains a warrant to take the child or children out of the abusive environment and place them either with another family member, or in a foster home.
“We look at the evidence,” said Janice Viss, assistant director of CSA — Adult and Child Family Services. “Similar to law enforcement, we have to have evidence of things happening.”
In extreme cases of abuse, law enforcement is called and then child welfare removes the child from the abusive environment.
The child welfare office has the daunting task of keeping the county’s children safe, all while struggling with recent budget cuts.
From January 2008 to June 2011, there has been a 29 percent overall reduction in the child welfare budget, said Viss. Those cuts made a difference in the services provided.
“We saw more kids going into foster care,” Viss said. “When we made reductions, Safety First prevention was cut, the high-risk intervention program was eliminated and there was a dramatic increase in case load numbers.”
Thankfully in June, the department was able to develop alternative local funding to fully utilize state and federal allocations. This funding miracle will help the department start rebuilding that important safety net for the county’s children and families.
“Stanislaus County has been very impacted. There’s a lot of a need out there at a time when there’s not a lot of funding,” Viss said. “We have incredible community partners who have come together to do the best we can with what we have. We’re unique here because of that support.”
This is the first in a series of stories about child welfare. Future stories will look at foster care and services for foster kids once they turn 18.
To contact Kristina Hacker, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2004.