Proposed budget would add 542 child-welfare workers in L.A. County

If L.A. County officials OK a budget adding 542 child-welfare workers, it would signal a shift in priorities

One of the perennial complaints in Los Angeles County government — that child-welfare caseworkers carry crushing caseloads — might be eased if county supervisors approve a plan to accelerate one of the most aggressive rounds of hiring in county history.

A proposed $27-billion budget to be released next week calls for 542 additional child-welfare worker positions, on top of 450 social workers hired last year to settle a strike by social workers, according to plans obtained by The Times. This year's hiring would cost $66.9 million.

If approved, the hiring would represent a profound shift in priorities on the elected county Board of Supervisors. Until last year, the panel was dominated by officials who believed problems at the Department of Children and Family Services could be solved by better use of the 7,500 employees and $1.5-billion budget the agency already had.

"Our caseloads are still going to be very high even if this is approved — much higher than what I would like," department Director Philip Browning said.

The department has been battered for years by reports of social workers missing signs of abuse, neglect and, in some cases, fatal conditions in homes under their supervision. When cases go wrong, social workers have sometimes escaped discipline when officials determined that they could not have possibly carried out the responsibilities they have for all the children in their caseloads.

"I've said all along that the caseloads are so high that it is virtually impossible for social workers to say that they've investigated nearly every possibility in a child's case," Supervisor Sheila Kuehl told the Times in an interview this year.

Kuehl and Supervisor Hilda Solis, who campaigned with financial support from the social workers union, have joined holdover Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to call for a fresh review of recommendations made by a blue-ribbon commission in the aftermath of the beating death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez.

The boy's mother and her boyfriend are facing charges of murder, and officials acknowledge that the death followed egregious errors by county social workers, sheriff's deputies and other government agencies.

"Los Angeles County social workers have caseloads that are among the highest in the nation; they need our support," Solis said earlier this year. "We need to look at how they're deployed, trained, supervised and equipped. Hiring more social workers is one of the options that needs to be in the mix for consideration."

One factor that played a role in many of the department's child fatalities was that the areas of the county with the highest needs — South Los Angeles and the Antelope Valley — were the most severely understaffed. Many of the new recruits are being sent to those areas, and they will have an appropriate staffing level for the first time in memory, Browning said.

David Green, a board member for the social workers union, part of Service Employees International Union Local 721, said social workers investigating complaints of abuse should handle a maximum of 18 children at a time. The current caseload average is 20, he said. For social workers managing the cases of children already in foster care, the union wants a cap of 24 children; those caseloads currently average 27.

"We haven't met our goals, unfortunately," Green said. "We need to do more, and that's what I think you are seeing the supervisors do now."

Green said the county needs to focus on maintaining high standards in selecting new social workers. But he noted that managers have a large applicant pool to work with — more than 2,000 people sought such jobs last year.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Twitter: @gtherolf

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