PERSPECTIVE

To limit child tragedies, give social workers what they need

For social workers, the top priority is making sure children are safe. Give them the resources — and the time — to ensure they can do that.

Gabriel Fernandez

Gabriel Fernandez, 8, died in May. The Palmdale boy's mother and her boyfriend have been charged with torture and murder in his death. The Department of Children and Family Services had conducted six prior child abuse investigations into Gabriel's family. (Christina House / For the Los Angeles Times / July 9, 2013)

The first items Nancy Razo pulled out of her binder when we sat down to talk were obituaries of three co-workers who died of strokes that Razo believes were linked to stress on the job.

"These were women who dedicated their lives to public service, to helping kids," she said.

They were, like her, social workers in the Palmdale office of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Razo thinks they were done in by high caseloads, long hours and constant demands to "get it done now."

Their deaths feel like collateral damage in a battle against child abuse that only grabs the public's attention when a child's death makes news.

The latest child to die was 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez. Gabriel's mother and her boyfriend have been charged with torture and murder in his death.

But social workers are being blamed for not recognizing the danger the child faced in a family with a long history of child abuse allegations.

Gabriel had been on the department's radar for months. When he died in May, he had a cracked skull, missing teeth, broken ribs and BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin.

Four social workers involved in the case have been on "desk duty" in Palmdale since then. But Razo said every social worker feels the weight of young Gabriel's death.

"They're all struggling, the entire office," Razo said. "We know what we do could affect a life; we deal with that every day.

"What happened to these social workers could happen to any one of us any time," she said. "Maybe they weren't doing a good job on that case....But you're focusing on one family and you've got 25 others, and something tragic happens.

"We need more social workers and smaller caseloads," she said. "We're in crisis mode all the time."

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Razo had emailed to complain about a column I wrote about Gabriel's death, calling for social workers to be held accountable for any missteps.

A social worker since 2005, Razo is also incensed about a memo from agency director Phillip Browning suggesting that a lack of critical thinking and common sense contributed to Gabriel's death.

That comment hit many social workers I heard from particularly hard. "Having the time to reflect, the time to take in everything you've observed… that's what can save a life," Razo said.

The day I interviewed her in Palmdale, Razo had spent several hours searching for a foster home for a newborn. Her job is "supposed to be 9 to 5, but some nights I'm out in the field until 10 or 11, then back in the office at 7 a.m," she said.

Some social workers in her office juggle 30 or 40 cases. The optimal caseload standard is between 12 and 17. Union officials say it would take 1,400 more social workers to adhere to those limits.

Razo walked me through a process spiked with land mines: volatile parents who threaten them, a critical shortage of foster homes, redundant layers of bureaucracy, judges who routinely overrule their recommendations on child custody.

An expansion of parents' rights and a department philosophy that favors keeping families together have made it harder to justify a child's removal or collect the information needed to prove abuse.

"Abused kids don't trust strangers," Razo said. "And when you're juggling dozens of cases with crucial deadlines, there's no time to build the rapport you need to get a kid to talk to you.

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