Saturday, September 23, 2023

Underperforming, Understaffed, and Underpaid: Grand Jury’s Findings on Mendocino County’s Family and Children’s Services

Lady Justice mural in the Mendocino County courthouse [Picture by Matt LaFever]

The most recent Grand Jury report about the dire conditions at Mendocino County’s Family and Children’s Services division came out earlier this month. The report warns that understaffing, specifically the lack of personnel with proper experience and education, is a leading factor in the county’s low performance metrics, compared to state averages. While the report notes that “Understaffing does not appear to be related to funding issues,” it does appear to hamper timely investigations, leading to a work environment that former staff have described as “hostile” and “toxic.”

This year’s report notes that the situation has been the subject of two previous Grand Jury reports: one in May of 2015, and another in June of 2017. Eight years ago, the Grand Jury announced its investigation with this grim summary: “The Mendocino County Family and Children’s Services Agency is one of the lowest scoring child protective services agencies in the State of California (State). In spite of a dedicated, caring, hardworking staff, the agency appears to be falling further behind. Every performance indicator points to understaffing as the main culprit.”

Understaffing appears to go back to 2011, when base salaries were cut by 2011 and, “There was an exodus of experienced staff…Testimony termed the level of morale as ‘almost malignant.’” At that time, the Grand Jury reported documented instances of retaliation and “Lack of respectful communication,” concluding that, “Fear is always a morale problem.” Oddly, in the report that followed two years later, the Grand Jury itself took some responsibility for low morale at the agency, reporting without evidence that, “The critical content of the 2014-15 Report, intended for the BOS (Board of Supervisors), inadvertently devastated staff and resulted in loss of morale in the Department.”

Employees still report a toxic work environment due in large part to overwork caused by understaffing, which in turn is caused by difficulties in recruitment and retention. This year’s report notes that there are no state waivers available to ease the educational requirements for staff. Half of the social workers provide emergency response and family maintenance services and all of their supervisors are supposed to have a Masters’s degree in Social Work (MSW). These requirements are not being met. In 2017, there was a state waiver, and lack of staff was cited dozens of times in the analysis of the department’s shortcomings. The first finding of that report was that the 2011 exodus and lackluster recruitment “has resulted in the hiring of inexperienced workers with a higher than normal turnover rate and a need for on-the-job training.” While the 2017 report cites “The County’s pervasive drug culture,” a number of other social ills, and the lack of a competitive salary scale, this year’s report concludes that, “Understaffing does not appear to be related to funding issues.” Ninety-five percent of the department’s funding comes from federal grants and sales tax revenue. Turnover is up to one-third of the staff every year, with employees reporting that it takes two years on the job to become competent.

Multiple reorganizations of the department, including one in 2013 and two in 2016-2017, have resulted in low morale. A lengthy hiring process and stagnant recruiting efforts continue to contribute to a shortage in staff. And the workload in Mendocino County is higher than the state average, with 56.2 investigations of child abuse and neglect per 1000 children. The state average is 34.5 investigations per 1000 children. And Mendocino County’s timely response to referrals for immediate investigation in the last quarter of 2022 was 80.3%, compared to a statewide average of 95%.

The Grand Jury reports on this topic have grown sparser each year. The explosive 2015 document filled 29 pages, with appendices and graphs and a gruesome newspaper story about a four-year-old child who was beaten with a coat hanger and handcuffed to a table. Forty findings and eighteen recommendations indicated an expectation that the situation was salvageable.

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The 13-page report from 2017 contained a single appendix pertaining to salaries for social workers, while this year’s report topped out at ten pages, including an attachment with some definitions of various protocols. Two of the four recommendations address recruitment and retention. A third recommendation, that the department create internships, refers to a suggestion that internships and field placements for MSW students could swell the ranks of qualified employees.

The final recommendation is that the department encourage a positive workplace environment. Efforts to this end are already underway, including regular all-staff meetings, training and mentoring, employee appreciation and acknowledgment, and a monthly newsletter.

The report, while succinct, does not mince words, stating that, “This situation is not sustainable.”


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  1. County employees are some of the most dedicated people I’ve ever met. Imagine a job where you have to deal with an old lady who lives in a dangerously hoarded house and is at serious risk of dying. But when you come to try to help her, she screams at you and calls you horrible names. Or a mother who is so damaged by drugs she allows her new “boyfriend” to beat her young child. When you come to intervene and protect that child and remove him or her from the home, the mother tells you she’ll find you and kill you. Or the visiting nurses that come to the home of a teenaged mother to provide support and parenting education to break the cycle of abuse and neglect. Think about the Hazmat crew who get up in the middle of the night to clean up an oil spill on Hwy 101 so it doesn’t flow into the Russian River.
    This Board of Supervisors must put the employees as the first priority. Staff up and pay the people a salary that reflects the difficult, often dangerous, and much needed work they do.
    Julie Beardsley, MPH
    President, SEIU Local 1021

  2. Year after year CA has added regulations on top of regulations that make any kind of constructive undertaking infeasible if not impossible. This includes, of course, keeping up with demands for affordable housing. When a County or a health care worker cannot find such affordable housing, they leave as anyone would. There is so much to say about this but let me leave it at this — review all regulations under the lens of cost/benefit to communities.

  3. Other County departments have the very same issues. It has become extremely difficult to hire qualified candidates and retain them. We have been working at 2/3 staffing levels for a very long time. It takes at least two years to become competent in our department as well. We spend so much time training only to have them leave for another county offering better pay. We have lost so many good employees and even a few after seeing their first paycheck due to our share of retirement, healthcare, union dues and tax deductions. People who have worked in other counties have commented about the excessive amount deducted from our paychecks. Other counties have better pay AND more importantly, benefits without shared costs for health and retirement benefits. Our office prosecutes crimes. Inadeqate prosecution means more crime our community. A simple clerical error can cause a case to be dismissed. We must have qualified, trained and adequately staffed departments to ensure public safety. Unfortunately, the cost of living has gone through the roof. Mendocino County housing is astronomical and many county employees work second jobs in order to make ends meet. Do the BOS really expect our hard-working, dedicated employees to continue to work under these conditions with absolutely no cost of living increase and force us to pay more for the already inadequate health coverage on top of that?! Unbelievable.

    • There is also an element of toxic leadership which causes excessive turn-over in this county. I know people who worked in a certain office who had prior experience in other counties, but were driven out by insecure mgmt and toxic practices which had nothing to do with pay or benefits. You can not be smarter than your mgr and if this bar is set low (i.e. the mgr) than smart people are going to leave.

      • That’s why I left. Toxic at the top, BOS won’t do anything, and horrible pay for highly qualified workers. And we get to watch our overpaid county council waste our tax dollars on lawsuits he is paid to stop? WTF Mendo County?

        • Ditto here. I think the best thing that could happen is to get more city charters created in Mendo. Like encourage the cities take over more control over their own regional areas. Create their own police, permitting processes, and tax funds. I think people may be more engaged if they can actually contact their local city council person about more immediate concerns than to contact a distant BOS member. Plus your taxes get directed to your local city instead of the vapid void of the county unincorporated area.

  4. Jim Jones did some awesome childcare back when he ran Mendocino County. Take a good look at the history of this corrupt side of California. He was well funded also.

    • He didn’t run Mendocino county, he ran away to Mendocino county before people became fed up with his bullshit. Namely what he did to the Redwood Valley Market’s owner trying to intimidate him into selling out to him.His compound in Redwood valley was a fortress and then they all just left to go die in south America…

  5. I just had my one month old baby girl taken away from me today due to my oldest daughters bio mom’s false information and due to my soon to be ex wifes false alagations on domistic volince charges. I had a judge grant me temporary custody and CPS opened a case and took my daughter. Without feather investigation on the lies

  6. I really hate to be critical but there was the case of Edward Two Feathers Steele and the death of the one-year-old in August of 2022. According to sheriff’s deputies, they called child protective services but nobody answered or called back. As a result, the two children ended up in the custody of Steele, and then somehow abandoned down by the railroad tracks in weather quite similar to what we are having today, i.e. 101 degrees. That case remains unresolved. No blow back for CPS as far as I can tell, and Steele has now apparently been judged as unfit to stand trial, or at least is undergoing his second evaluation the first one concluding that he was able to stand trial, but somehow his attorney got the judge to grant another look at his mental state. In my view, the grand jury did not go far enough in recommending cures for these serious, heartbreaking and fatal flaws in the system.

  7. This problem can be applied to about every Dept in Mendo County, except maybe Planning and Building, where most people make six figures and have quick staff replacement. Why do we have a CEO again? Why can’t they figure out their secret budget that they have hidden from the public for a decade?

  8. Have a ton of employees who have been sitting in positions complacent for over 20 years at the top that’s the problem. The people at the top sitting flutter around go to a lot of meetings. Make themselves look like they’re really busy but they spend a great deal of time doing nothing but flapping their lips.

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Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith is a radio and print reporter working in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, focusing on local politics and environmental news.

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