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Social workers' strike having lasting effect on foster care system

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Last month's strike by Los Angeles County public employees, their first in more than a decade, was short-lived. But the effects are still being felt by some families entangled in the foster care system.

Anthony Rogers flew to Los Angeles from North Carolina for a Dec. 13 custody hearing involving his 15-month-old grandson, who had been placed in protective care after his son had an altercation with the child's mother. Rogers and his wife had been in regular communication with social workers about caring for the child. They had prepared a room in their home, bought Christmas presents and arranged for a nanny.

But when Rogers arrived in court — two days after social workers ended their walkout — he said he learned the case had to be continued until sometime in the New Year because of paperwork backups caused by the strike.

"They never told us they were going on strike," Rogers said of the social workers he had been in contact with.

Rogers, 51, spent nearly $2,000 on airfare, a hotel, a rental car and food during the trip, and did get to spend an hour with his grandson, holding him for the first time, before flying home. But the couple had to give up hope of having the child home for Christmas.

The county's Department of Children and Family Services doesn't comment on specific cases, but the law firm representing the child confirmed the case was continued because a report wasn't filed by the department.

Family services spokesman Armand Montiel said the department and the court "take continuances very seriously" and that "social workers and managers are working to minimize the impact of continuances experienced during the work action."

County social workers are part of Service Employees International Union Local 721, the county government's largest bargaining group, and went on a six-day strike in December, after working without a contract for more than two months. Sticking points for a deal included social worker caseloads and the timing of a 6% raise for all of the union's 55,000 members. A tentative deal calls for 450 child-welfare employees to be hired and caseloads to be trimmed. The raise issue remains unresolved.

A union spokesman said that although services were affected during the strike, foster children will be safer and their families will receive better service in the long run because of promised smaller caseloads.

"Nobody wanted to go on strike," said SEIU spokesman Lowell Goodman, but social workers felt the "short-term harm" caused by the work action was worth the systemic improvements county officials have agreed to make.

The Rogers' grandchild will be the subject of a hearing Monday; many cases like the Rogers' have been postponed until February or later.

Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children's Law Center of California, which represents children in such cases, said the strike caused a ripple effect of delay through the child-welfare and family court system that is still being felt.

"Kids who were supposed to be in court weren't brought to court because transportation wasn't arranged," she said. "There were certainly delays of every type and cases postponed, which at the end of the day means kids staying in foster care perhaps when they don't have to be there."

A count of children affected by strike-related continuances wasn't available, but Supervising Judge Margaret S. Henry estimated that during the strike and in the days following, four or five hearings a day per courtroom were continued because of the walkout.

"We had a … lot of disruption, and a lot of unhappy parties and children," Henry said as social workers returned to their jobs.

But she said there is optimism that "we've turned a corner, there will be more social workers, things will be better."

Some families experienced shorter-term but unnerving disruptions during the strike.

Kim Meiser, 51, a grandmother of twin babies in foster care, said her daughter was unable to schedule her weekly visitation and for three days didn't know where one of the babies had been taken. The child's foster mother called Meiser's daughter to say someone named "Sal" picked up the baby girl, but she did not know where they had gone, Meiser said.

The children's social worker was out because of the strike, and other DCFS staffers were unable to explain what had happened, Meiser said. Meiser's daughter waited at a Glendora child-welfare office three days in a row, until she was told her child had been placed with a different foster family in Montclair, Meiser said.

Meiser said she supported the strikers' demands, but said children shouldn't have been placed "in limbo" during the strike. The children's social worker could not be reached for comment.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

abby.sewell@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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