Fostering Futures: Children at Risk

HUMBOLDT COUNTY, CA. – “My horses are my family. They have always been my family. They are the one thing in my life that has always been very true and very solid always there for me. They’re everything to me,” said Savanah McCarty of Wild Souls Ranch.

Savanah McCarty grew up in foster care, and now provides equine therapy to foster and adopted children overcoming their own adversities through her non-profit, Wild Souls Ranch.

She’s been able to ride her way into a brighter future, but for many children now who were like her – they are stuck in cycles of abuse.

“When you experience trauma as a child, it affects everything about your life,” said Savanah, “If you’re exposed to domestic violence, or drug abuse, or sexual abuse, those are all things that are forever ingrained.”

“I can definitely say that when you experience trauma as a child, it’s a lifelong journey to get through,” she added, “Especially children who have been in the foster care system, you develop a mask where you can hide what you’re feeling, and the horse sees right through that. So they can see what’s going on, and change that.”

Savanah has been able to serve as many as 40 children here at Wild Souls Ranch.

The Department of Health and Human Services estimates there are 327 children in the foster care system as of this year, but because of an alleged history of issues among county agencies, there may be even more children that need help.

In a Humboldt County Grand Jury report released this year, three key agencies were called out – including Child Welfare Services, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, and school districts led by the Humboldt County Office of Education – for “having major problems in how they work together to handle issues of ‘at risk’ children.”

So we visited each agency to find out more.

“We receive reports of suspected abuse and neglect. Of those, we investigate the ones that meet criteria. If we find that ultimately the child cannot remain safe in the home, we do have to remove them and place them into care,” explained Child Welfare Services Program Manager, Alison Phongsavath.

Grand jury findings showed in recent years that CWS failed to respond to reports of neglect and abuse in a timely manner, or didn’t respond at all.

In 2015 and 2016, out of 50 cases which were supposed to receive a response in 24 hours – the average time it took CWS to respond, was 12 days.

During this same time period, CWS opened cases for investigation on only 6% of 2,859 mandatory reports received between 2015 and 2016.

Some mandated reporters, such as teachers or doctors, say they would continue to report on a certain child or family as many as 6-21 times and “when CWS finally agreed to investigate”, the situation had gotten worse for the child, over the weeks or months that passed.

“I think that the Grand Jury report shows that there have been times when there have been misses,” said Phongsavath, “Our system is made up of human beings and there can be human error which we strive every day to not have. Unfortunately we have had misses in the past, and we’re trying to improve that so there can be safeguards so there won’t be misses in the future.”

An issue CWS faces, like many Humboldt County employers, is high turnover – creating the problem of new social workers not necessarily knowing the history of a child, and generally not having much experience.

“Many young people that are completing college tend to not stay in jobs than people did historically before, so there’s a quicker turn around because they move because there are more options,” explained Phongsavath, “So that is definitely a struggle.”

As for the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, there have been issues with consistent cross-reporting.

“Over the last year or so, we have, Child Welfare Services and the Sheriff’s Office, has been in constant communication trying to fix a problem that was in existence. And that problem was lack of communication, lack of coordination. And that is something we have worked intensely on over the last year,” said Sheriff William Honsal of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office.

Deputies described this problem, explaining that new deputies and supervisors “need more training to handle the severity of child abuse and neglect cases” and found that some deputies were failing to write reports following investigations.

“The fact is that we have to give this specialty training to our deputies, and to enforce the fact that they are mandated reporters – they have to follow up, they have to cross report to Child Welfare,” said Sheriff Honsal, “It is very important that they get all of this training. The more and more exposure that we get to the deputies how to investigate these kinds of incidents – it’s going to benefit the county.”

Many signs of abuse and neglect show up in our schools, but issues exist there, too.

Humboldt County Superintendent Chris Hartley explained their school districts don’t have a standardized way of keeping records of mandated reports.

“Part of the situation could be what level of atomicity a district wants to have on filing a report,” said Hartley, “That’s kind of a district by district decision. You want to protect someone feeling comfortable to make the report on an anonymous level. So we’re working on how do we share information on a very basic level so we can take that and do planning and interventions for any particular student.”

All in all, these problems need fixing.

“If we don’t deal with this problem now, we’re going to be dealing with it twenty years from now,” said Savanah of Wild Souls Ranch, “So I think it’s so important that we address it and stop ignoring it like it’s not a problem. Social workers really need to dive in and be honest and not just have some paperwork that they need to push.”

“It takes a community to support the successful raising of a chil,” said Phongsavath of Child Welfare Services, “It’s not one family, one nuclear family. It’s not one agency or one system. It’s everyone coming together wanting to support the population.”

“I think the issue of mental health needs and trauma for students in Humboldt County is at a critical state,” said Hartley of HCOE, “We have to do everything we can, no just as educators, but with all of our agencies work together and cope with the issues that they face also become more proactive. I can’t emphasis how critical it is that we take that work extremely seriously.”

“We have a cycle going on in the county right now, where children are still with parents that have been abusive. They’re been neglected – and that just carries on when they become adults or teenagers and drug abuse occurs,” said Sheriff Honsal, “It’s important that we break that cycle now with the children and we have the opportunity to do that.”

If you encounter a situation where you suspect a child is experiencing neglect or abuse, you should contact Humboldt County Child Welfare Services at their hotline, 707-445-6180, or call 911 immediately.