Valley News -

County initiates probe of child welfare agency


Last updated 9/21/2018 at 11:15am

RIVERSIDE - Following the resignation of the agency's director and disclosures that staff allegedly missed red flags concerning child abuse, Riverside County Chief Executive Officer George Johnson ordered an investigation of practices and procedures within the Department of Adult & Child Protective Services, it was announced on Thursday, Sept. 20.

"Nothing we do is more important,'' Johnson said. "The county has worked hard to reduce attrition and add social workers in the last two years. Those measures support efforts by our social workers to protect thousands of children and adults every year.''

Executive Office officials are in talks with an unnamed area law firm to oversee the internal probe now underway and provide recommendations on what policies might need to be changed to improve operations at the department.

A prospective contract with the firm will require a public hearing and approval by the Board of Supervisors.

Last week, Department of Public Social Services Director Susan von Zabern abruptly resigned her position without specifying why. The Department of Adult & Child Protective Services is a division of DPSS. Von Zabern's departure coincided with revelations that the county was named as a defendant in lawsuits filed on behalf of two minors, identified in court documents only as "Jacquelyn'' and "Gail,'' who are not related.

Jacquelyn, now 15 years old, was impregnated by her mother's live-in boyfriend in Hemet, according to the lawsuit. It's alleged that child welfare workers failed to ensure the girl's safety after she'd reported being raped by the man, Deon Austin Welch, who is charged with 16 counts of aggravated sexual assault of a minor.

Gail, now 4 years old, was removed from her mother's custody after police found the child in an apartment clutching the mummified corpse of her dead infant sibling, according to court filings.

Child welfare agents had been sent to the location previously based on complaints of potential neglect and abuse, but no action was taken, according to published reports.

In 2015, Child Protective Services came under scrutiny following the arrest of John David Yoder, a Palm Springs public school instructional aide and licensed foster care provider. Yoder was eventually convicted of multiple acts of child molestation for his sexual exploitation of a developmentally disabled boy and arranging for fellow alleged pedophiles to meet youths for sexual

encounters and to make child pornography. The defendant is serving a 24-year prison sentence.

Questions were raised about Yoder's fitness to remain a foster parent prior to the criminal investigation that led to felony charges against him, but Child Protective Services staff found no evidence of wrongdoing.

In 2010, a county audit revealed that a group home for foster kids, Riverside-based T-Town, had been collecting state disbursements -- $5,613 per child every month -- for wards who had been emancipated or transferred to other foster facilities. T-Town contracted with DPSS. The scam involved dozens of minors and resulted in a slew of fraud charges against the proprietors, Purcell Johnson and his wife, Laverne Johnson. Both defendants pleaded guilty to grand theft, embezzlement, and conspiracy. Each was sentenced to five years in state prison in 2013.

According to county officials, CPS received 40,000 reports of child abuse in 2017, resulting in 34,200 investigations and nearly 5,000 substantiated claims.

Officials said that the agency's annual staff attrition rate has been cut in half, and the number of workers handling cases has increased 16 percent since 2016.

The county is actively recruiting candidates to replace von Zabern, seeking an individual with "extensive experience with state social services regulations'' and a broad understanding of privacy and other laws, according to an Executive Office statement.

The process should be completed before year's end.


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