During Board of Supervisors meetings, most items are passed without any discussion. This past Tuesday, agenda item number 38 drew some questions that were addressed by Social Services Agency Director Dr. Michael Riley. When someone cites statistics about Orange County or California, I like to keep them in context. If you tell me that the OC has the third most incidents in the state, then I would say that makes sense, as we are the third most populous county in the state. No alarm. But, if you said we had the third highest incidents per capita, then I would want to do some digging into the problem. Consequently, to provide some perspective on the issue raised, I asked for comparative data on walk-aways. The Voice of OC covers the interaction in the piece below.
County to Focus on Foster Children AWOL at Group Homes
By NICK GERDA
Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer is raising questions about dozens of foster children who walk away from group homes in the county each month, and the lack of information that the county’s top elected leaders receive on the issue.
Walk-aways account for a large portion of police calls to the privately-run facilities, said Spitzer, some of which generate dozens of police visits annually.
“I had no idea there were so many calls for service at some of these group homes,” Spitzer said at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “The numbers, to me, are unacceptable.”
The discussion prompted a commitment from county staff to start providing basic monthly reports to the board on walk-away incidents at group homes, which, according to the state, care for foster youth with serious emotional or behavioral problems.
Spitzer’s voiced his concerns just before supervisors unanimously approved a $16-million, three-year contract with unspecified group home providers.
Of around 100 children in group homes across Orange County, about 30 walk away each month, according to Social Services Director Michael Riley.
Spitzer also successfully pushed to change the contract to require that group home providers notify the county’s social services agency each time police are called to their facility.
Supervisor John Moorlach sees the walk-aways as much less alarming.
“Having a juvenile walk away from a group home seems sort of ordinary to me,” said Moorlach.
The real question, he added, is: “How does Orange County compare to San Diego County, or Santa Clara County? What are the number of walk-aways, or AWOLs, per capita?”
Supervisor Pat Bates, who used to be a social worker, said her colleagues should have a specific goal in seeking more group home information.
“I’m just not sure where we’re going with the collection of data,” said Bates. “What is that purpose? Do we want to re-enter the discussion at the state Legislature so we have some outcomes they’re required to provide?”
She suggested that supervisors hold a stakeholder meeting when the data comes in.
Among his concerns, Spitzer criticized the state for largely tying local government’s hands when it comes to regulating where the foster care facilities are placed.
“I think the public policy that the state has kind of pushed down on us is ill-advised,” said Spitzer. “At the same time, I understand you have to have a location for these young people because they’re some of the most difficult populations to serve.”
Riley later noted that the state has placed a moratorium on new group homes, making another one highly unlikely in Orange County anytime soon.
Spitzer, a former police officer and prosecutor, also expressed shock at the number of police calls to group homes.
He cited a group home in Orange that had 33 calls for service within a year, ranging from assault with a deadly weapon to trespassing, stealing and residents walking away.
Other group homes in Anaheim and Trabuco Canyon had 31 and 20 calls, respectively.
“If a kid walks off a facility, or escapes from a facility, there’s no notification to the neighbors,” said Spitzer. “Our neighborhoods don’t get to know that there could be a dangerous situation.”
Riley said he could provide supervisors with a monthly report of group home walk-aways, with a general overview of the incident, its precursors and how social services staff followed up.
But due to confidentiality requirements under state law, Riley said, his information to supervisors could only list the juveniles’ first names and must exclude background information on them.
Spitzer said those constraints make it extremely difficult for the board to provide proper oversight.
“How do we do our job?” asked Spitzer. “Where’s the balance between our ability to get information so that we can work with you” to decide whether to sanction a group home or see if there needs to be community outreach?
Spitzer added that he “used to get complaints all the time” about aberrant behavior at group homes.
Riley replied his department rarely gets complaints, and that “any time there is any kind of incident” at a group home, the operator must immediately to provide social services with a specific incident report, or SIR.
County staff, however, don’t confirm through police logs that group homes are truly reporting every incident.
Spitzer wants that to change.
“I mean, 33 calls for service at one location, that’s a lot right?” asked Spitzer.
Riley agreed, later agreeing to audit a random sample of the county’s 36 group homes to verify whether they’ve been telling officials about every serious incident.
Wrapping up Tuesday’s conversation, Orange County’s social services director said he found it frustrating that, unlike other states, California has mostly prohibited locked facilities for foster children.
Officials can’t stop foster youths from walking away from group homes, Riley said, unless they pose a risk to themselves or others.
By law, all staff can do is “watch them walk away.”
Concerns about foster care facilities aren’t just limited to Orange County.
You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.
FIVE-YEAR LOOK BACKS
In the day when Grand Jury reports were more academic and useful, out came one that was ignored by the 2004 Board of Supervisors just fifteen months later. Stuart Pfeifer of the LA Times provided the story in “O.C. Assailed Over Boost in Benefits – Human resources OKd sweetened pensions, bonuses that will add $75 million to budget while county braces for cuts, grand jury says.” Fast forward ten years later and the County’s pension system has an unfunded actuarial accrued liability (UAAL) of $5.4 billion dollars. For a contrast, the UAAL was less than $1 billion when this Grand Jury report was released. A train wreck in slow motion indeed.
A new grand jury report criticizes Orange County’s human resources department for agreeing to benefits for county workers that could end up costing the county an extra $75 million at a time it is considering layoffs and massive service cutbacks.
The eight-page report, to be formally released Monday, is the third in a series of Orange County Grand Jury reports about alleged mismanagement in the human resources office.
The report faults county officials for increasing pension benefits for county law enforcement officers and firefighters, allowing workers to merge sick leave and vacation pay, approving 2% salary bonuses for county workers and increasing the amount of money the county pays to educate its workforce.
"Salary and employee benefit increases have been generously distributed with little regard to impacts on county budgets or taxpayer interests," wrote the grand jury, which acts as a watchdog for local government. The report does not say how unusual the benefits are compared with those provided by other counties. At least one of the arrangements criticized in the report, however — a lucrative retirement provision for some law enforcement and firefighting employees — is common statewide.
The grand jury suggested that the county try to renegotiate some benefits with unions representing more than 17,000 of its employees and establish an oversight committee to monitor labor negotiations — an idea first proposed by Supervisors Chuck Smith and Chris Norby.
In addition, the panel suggested that the county’s auditor and chief financial officer review all wage and benefit proposals and take them to the Board of Supervisors for approval.
Representatives of three of the largest Orange County employee unions said they believed the benefits were not out of line and suggested that additional oversight would impede labor negotiations.
"That would create labor problems that are going to be a firestorm of trouble for the county," said Nick Berardino, assistant general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents more than 13,000 county government workers.
Robert MacLeod, general manager of the union that represents more than 1,700 sheriff’s deputies and district attorney investigators, said he believes the grand jury report lacks credibility because the panel refused to meet with him or other union officials.
"If you’re only willing to listen to one side, you have no right to claim your position is worthy of respect and consideration," MacLeod said.
Diane Thomas, a county spokeswoman, declined to comment. She said it is not within county policy to discuss grand jury reports until county staff has prepared a written response.
The grand jury report follows two earlier reports that said the human resources office created a hostile work environment and overpaid a consultant. The latest report comes at a time when Orange County, like many local governments in California, is struggling to deal with a massive budget shortfall that could require it to cut services and lay off workers.
It criticized the county’s decision to approve a 50% increase in retirement benefits for its more than 2,000 sheriff’s deputies and firefighters, a plan that allows some veteran workers to retire at 50 with a pension of as much as 90% of their final salary for life. The plan will cost the county $28.7 million a year, according to the grand jury report.
Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector John M.W. Moorlach has been highly critical of the increased pension benefit, which he said could deplete the county’s pension system and force the county to make massive cutbacks.
"You can see this train wreck coming in slow motion, just like you could see the bankruptcy," said Moorlach, whose criticism of Orange County’s risky investment strategies in the early 1990s went largely ignored until the county declared bankruptcy in 1994.
Orange County is hardly alone in its shift to the more lucrative law enforcement pension program.
More than 300 police, sheriff’s deputies and firefighter unions in California have negotiated the same plan.
The benefit is so prevalent in California that law enforcement agencies must offer it to remain competitive, said Carlos Arauz, director of human resources for San Diego County.
“Everybody in the world has done it,” he said.
The grand jury report took issue with other benefits offered to Orange County workers, including a plan that allows workers to earn a 2% bonus each year if they meet certain goals.
The grand jury noted that more than 95% of the county’s workers are awarded the bonuses, which could cost $15.5 million this year.
“It is not a true incentive plan, but rather an across-the-board 2% pay raise disguised as an incentive plan,” the grand jury report said.
In addition, the grand jury questioned the county’s decision to increase from $750 to $2,000 a year its reimbursement to employees for education expenses.
In one year, the county’s education costs jumped from $300,000 to $1.6 million, an increase of 433%, according to the report.
As a comparison, San Diego County offers its workers up to $870 a year for education, the equivalent of two three-unit classes at San Diego State University, Arauz said.
The report also questioned whether it made sense for the county to allow its workers to merge sick leave and vacation into one plan called “annual leave.”
The Board of Supervisors approved the plan in November after the human resources office indicated it would not cost the county more.
Orange County’s auditor later concluded that the plan resulted in an immediate expense of $29.5 million.
“You go down that list, it keeps piling up,” Moorlach said. “What did we get in concession for this? Did we get no pay raises for five years? No. We got nothing in return. It’s sort of like Santa Claus. It’s just a pure gift.”
Union officials disputed that assessment.
They said that there is no evidence that the annual leave plan will result in additional costs to the county. Rather, they said, it will lead to a more efficient workforce less burdened by sick leave.
“Where is the data that supports these findings? This is not consistent with any of the information that was part of the negotiations,” said Bernadette Cemore, vice president of the Orange County Attorneys Assn., which represents more than 400 deputy public defenders, district attorneys and county attorneys.
“Without the underlying data, these conclusions are baseless,” she said.
Jean O. Pasco of the LA Times provided an “Election ‘98” update with “Reformers Moorlach, Granville Are Unopposed for Treasurer, Clerk.”
Two county reformers appointed by supervisors to reshape their departments will face voters on the June 2 ballot without challengers.
Treasurer-Tax Collector John M.W. Moorlach has become something of a folk hero in county government for his early warnings about predecessor Robert L. Citron’s risky financial investments, which plunged the county into bankruptcy in 1994.
Long active in the Republican Party, Moorlach, 41, was tapped as a logical candidate in 1994 to take on Citron, the county’s lone elected Democrat.
A certified public accountant, Moorlach sounded alarms about Citron’s investments, but his warnings irked county officials, who accused him of harming the county’s credit ratings on Wall Street.
Moorlach lost the race but was appointed in early 1995 after Citron resigned. Since then, he has implemented policies to protect the county from future risky investments.
County Clerk-Recorder Gary L. Granville was appointed in 1985 with the supervisors’ blessing to take over as clerk-recorder and clean up a problem-plagued recorder’s office, the subject of a scathing audit and complaints about untimely document recording.
Six months ago, it appeared that Granville would step down, but he changed his mind.
Granville, 68, said he will run for a final term to finish the work he started, including installation of computer systems to make recording and retrieving documents simpler.
Since taking the job, he has reduced the number of employees in the office, which now raises more money for the county general fund than it costs to operate.
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