Child Protective Services needs to do more to ensure that complaints it receives are handled properly and in a timely fashion, according to a new report.
A study by the state Auditor General's Office released Tuesday found that the agency makes it easy for the public to file complaints.
It also concluded that the written responses prepared by CPS generally are adequate.
But Auditor General Debra Davenport said her staff members concluded that the agency, responsible for investigating cases of child abuse and neglect, needs new policies to ensure that all complaints are handled consistently.
In fact, the study says CPS does not even have a true definition of what constitutes a complaint.
Davenport said this is needed to differentiate between an actual problem and a simple request for information.
And unless true complaints are properly classified, it becomes difficult to know if they were properly handled.
Within that, Davenport said CPS needs to establish - and enforce - timelines of exactly how complaints must be addressed to ensure that they do not languish.
Aside from ensuring that all legitimate complaints are processed, she said it is important for those who file those complaints to know when their concerns are going to be addressed.
She said CPS guidelines require a written response to client grievances within 10 days.
But Davenport said that seven of the 27 response letters issued in 2007 were sent out anywhere from 16 to 53 days late. Andthe agency could not locate any responses at all in 13 other cases.
Davenport also reported that CPS did not respond within guidelines to 58 of 112 correspondences which were referred from the office of the director of the Department of Economic Security to CPS in 2007.
On a related front, Davenport said there needs to be better documentation to ensure that appropriate and timely actions were taken.
And she said CPS needs specific criteria for how the agency will monitor the way formal complaints are processed.
Davenport also said CPS needs a centralized complaint tracking system instead of the three separate electronic logs which she said do not have the critical information necessary to ensure that complaints are being handled.
DES Director Tracy Wareing, in a formal response, said she agreed with all of the recommendationsand would implement them.
The agency has been the focus of legislative and media attention for several years in the wake of questions about how it handles complaints and investigations.
These were brought into sharp focus with the deaths of three children who were supposed to be protected, or at least monitored, by CPS.
Most recently the Legislature approved a series of changes in how the agency operates, including two designed to open the process to more public scrutiny. One opens the records of all cases where a child is murdered or nearly killed; the other requires open court hearings in cases where the state wants to take away someone's child unless the judge finds there is good reason for a closed session.
Other new laws include:
Altering how CPS deals with allegations of criminal conduct and works with law enforcement and prosecutors.
Giving the public access to the disciplinary records of all state employees, including CPS workers.
Requiring CPS workers to inform police when a child is believed to be missing and at risk of harm.
Forcing CPS employees to promptly obtain copies of existing court orders on child custody and abide by them.