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Scathing DSS audit: 66 percent of cases closed inappropriately

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – The City of Richmond will not fire anyone yet in response to a scathing report released Thursday by auditor Umesh Dalal that found the program manager heading up Richmond’s Child Protective Services unit may have compromised the safety of children.

Stephen Harms, the Interim Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Human Services, and Dalal held a joint press conference Thursday morning to discuss the audit. [All CBS 6 investigative reports on DSS can be found here.]

“We will take actions that are appropriate, but we have to do a job on a daily basis and the more workers we lose the less responsive we can be to these overwhelming case loads,” Harms said.

Harms said he thought the agency was making positive progress in addressing a backlog of hundreds of child welfare cases, and he was unaware of the issues raised by Dalal.

“Clearly, as they found, there were actions taken that we`re going to have to take a second look at with the help of the state,” Harms said.

Dalal said Harms and the former Interim Director for Social Services, Tonya Vincent, were both kept in the dark about decisions made by the program manager in charge of CPS that may have compromised the safety of some children.

“The manager made decisions and implemented procedures inconsistent with state policies,” Dalal said.

In one particular region, investigators found at least 28 of the 50 referrals reviewed were closed inappropriately, without important additional information being obtained and/or services being provided to the family or child/children.

Also in this region, three sexual abuse referrals were not conducted jointly with law enforcement, which is required by CPS policy.

Three referrals reviewed were closed with a “high” or “very high” risk rating, and no case was opened to CPS ongoing services, as required by CPS policy.

In two other referrals, there were unexplained physical injuries to infants that should have been investigated due to the seriousness of the allegations.

The auditor found that 774 CPS cases were closed between July 1, 2013 and September 30, 2013.

According to the report, two other localities of similar size closed 224 and 484 cases, respectively, during the same period.

Harms said he knew about the large number of cases closed during that time period.

“Yes, we did, and at that time, we took that as a sign of the progress we were making, the efforts we made to muster extra staff and work extra hours was achieving the results we were desiring.” Harms said.

The program manager is not named in the report, and Harms told CBS 6 he would not mention any names at the press conference.

However, sources very close to the investigation tell us the program manager in the report is Sheila Smith.

CBS6 reached out to Smith, but did not hear back from her.

Dalal said Smith was put in charge of making sure action was taken in more than 800 open cases of alleged child abuse or neglect.

But, the state later found many cases that had been closed under Smith’s watch, were not investigated properly.

The auditor concluded Smith may have put some children at risk in an attempt to close cases faster.

Dalal’s report pointed out that if a significant number of cases are closed within a short period, it indicates superior performance on the CPS unit.

Harms said Smith “felt she was acting in the best interest of the children in the face of overwhelming odds, overwhelming cases.”

CBS6 asked Harms if Smith was trying to make herself look better by closing so many cases.

“I don`t believe so,” Harms said.

Harms also pointed out Smith was not the only person who reviewed those cases. He said he would be looking into everybody who had a hand in touching those cases.

“Remember, we are having a hard time recruiting people into this profession. We need to first find ways that we can strengthen, train and build this team. We can’t be in a position of going immediately as our first resort saying it’s time to fire people,” Harms said.

Harms is temporarily overseeing the Department of Social Services.

He was tasked last January with improving DSS after several outside investigations revealed the agency was not doing enough to remove some children from abusive homes.

Dalal just presented Harms with the results of his investigation on Wednesday, and Harms said he is still processing the contents of the report.

Harms said he could not speak about personnel matters, but said the state would be coming in to work side by side with Smith at CPS in a supervisory role.

Dalal recommended disciplinary action at the conclusion of his report.

Harms told CBS6 he will be looking into disciplinary action for multiple employees, however, he said the agency’s staffing issues mean he cannot afford to fire people immediately.

Harms also confirmed the state is investigating four child deaths that occurred over the past year, but he would not provide any details about those cases.

“It’s part of an independent investigation by the state where we say we touched this case somewhere along the way…we are notifying you that there has been a death and we touched it somewhere back then,” Harms said.