RICHMOND, Va. -- A recent state investigation revealed that Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies are not always handling cases of child abuse or neglect appropriately and that the mistakes may be putting children in danger.
Virginia's Office of the Inspector General (OSIG) filed the report in September 2022, which reviewed the performance of local CPS programs across the state. Investigators found that CPS' "screening of cases was not always handled in accordance with code and CPS requirements."
CBS 6 discovered the audit while covering alleged abuse cases at a Chesterfield preschool. Court records revealed that the Chesterfield CPS agency received reports regarding teachers at the Chester Early Childhood Learning Academy. According to a search warrant affidavit filed by police, those CPS reports contained allegations that the teachers spanked students, pulled their hair, grabbed their necks, and smacked their faces.
However, police said CPS did not refer the claims to law enforcement and screened out the cases, which essentially means CPS dismissed the complaints as invalid reports. Leaders at the local agency have not publicly commented on the specific cases or answered questions about them, citing ongoing investigations and privacy laws.
The state's audit did not reference any specific mishandling of cases in Chesterfield County. However, it did find multiple instances in other local departments where CPS workers screened out cases they should not have, assigned cases to the wrong track, and did not respond with enough urgency to serious allegations.
For example, auditors discovered cases in Greene County and Norfolk City where children suffered broken and fractured bones, but CPS initiated a family assessment instead of an investigation.
In another case in an unspecified location, auditors said CPS screened out reports involving a 5-year-old who was exposed to domestic violence, instead of validating the report and assigning it to a family assessment.
In another incident in Henrico County, auditors said CPS screened out a case of medical abuse when it should have been screened in.
In another case in an unspecified location, auditors said CPS received a referral involving a 7-year-old who told a teacher the parent leaves the child and younger siblings home alone on a regular basis. CPS decided it should respond to that allegation within 40 work hours (5 business days) when CPS should have immediately responded within 24 hours of receiving the referral.
When CPS workers receive a complaint, they use an intake tool to determine whether a complaint meets specific criteria for abuse or neglect. If an intake worker validates a complaint, it is then assigned to a track for further action. Most valid complaints lead to a family assessment track, and valid reports regarding out-of-family individuals typically lead to a CPS investigation track.
The auditors noted that human error may sometimes occur in assigning tracks, but policies and the nature of the work require a "certain amount of professional judgment."
"There could also be danger to children if the referral is screened out when it should have been screened in as a valid case, or if the referral is assigned a family assessment track and it should have been assigned an investigation track instead," the audit said.
Democratic State Senator Barbara Favola, who represents part of Northern Virginia and chairs the senate's social services committee, said she was aware of the audit's findings.
“I know that the Department of Social Services is working with local Child Protective Service agencies to understand better what is going on on the ground," Favola said. "We need to peel back the onion and figure out how to make the system work better, so every child is guaranteed a safe and loving environment."
The audit recommended that the Virginia Department of Social Services, which oversees 120 local departments, provide annual training to its employees about CPS guidance.
“I think folks don't really fully understand the complexity of Child Protective Services and how much training an individual truly needs to enter a situation that is very traumatic," Favola said.
"We need to figure out when cases shouldn't be screened out, what evidence is compelling enough to say, 'That case shouldn't be screened out,'" Favola added. "It's a challenge, because every case is different, and how to apply a regulatory framework I think requires almost one-on-one training, and that's really a challenge. We also have to involve law enforcement more in this situation."
The Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS) agreed with OSIG's recommendation about annual training but noted that the department's training program has been historically under resourced.
Carl Ayers, VDSS Deputy Commissioner of Family Services, told CBS 6 last month that state department leaders are well aware of "inadequacies" in its training.
In fact, he said VDSS brought in an outside institution back in 2017 to create a 126-page report to address the department's training needs.
But he said lawmakers never funded it.
“And that's something the General Assembly needs to act on," Favola said.
Ayers said the deeper issues go beyond training as social services workers grapple with high turnover rates, low pay, and extreme stress.
He said it can take up to 24 months for a DSS employee to get through just the initial training requirements.
"We can't keep up with the training requirements," Ayers said. "To put an annual training requirement on somebody who isn't staying in their job two years has limited effectiveness, because staff aren't staying in those jobs."
Click here to read through OSIG's audit.
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