The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services has been under much scrutiny lately, following a series of highly publicized child deaths, a disgusting case of child abuse in Palmdale and, more recently, the publication of a scathing internal report, which The Times wrote about in the Feb. 14 article, “Report excoriates L.A. County agency in child deaths, torture.”
Contrary to what some people believe, front-line social workers -- the men and women who struggle every day to keep children safe and families whole -- have long been calling for departmental reforms. Our suggestions, which follow, are common sense. And they could make all the difference in improving the lives of thousands of children.
• Lighten the load. Social workers in L.A. County are drowning in cases. A report conducted by the California Department of Social Services concluded that social workers should have no more than 14 cases at any given time. Almost all L.A. County social workers regularly juggle more than twice that number.
• Hire more social workers. To reduce caseloads to safe levels, DCFS Director Philip Browning asked the Board of Supervisors to hire 1,400 new social workers. Instead, the board authorized hiring 100 -- fewer than typically hired before Browning’s request.
• End the “culture of fear.” There’s a vicious cycle at the DCFS: A newspaper article critical of DCFS runs; top administrators react by layering on dozens of new policies and procedures with no explanation or training; social workers who run afoul of these byzantine rules are brought up on disciplinary charges. This is no way to run any organization.
• Implement education-based discipline. Instead of using the disciplinary system to shift blame and cover up problems, front-line workers want the department to invest in training so they can avoid mistakes and become better social workers.
• Get workers out from behind their desks. Just 22% of the DCFS’s 7,000 workers provide direct services to clients. The remainder manage the bales of paperwork dictated by federal and state law, funding requirements, court decrees and the department’s own ballooning policy mandates. We must simplify the rulebook and get workers at all levels back into the field, where they can protect children.
• Make policymakers do casework. It’s time top managers and policymakers at the DCFS spent some time on the front lines. There are more than 20 administrators in the DCFS’s Office of Strategic Management. Few, if any, ever see a client, work a case or meet a child served by the agency. Every executive at the DCFS should understand firsthand the difficult judgment calls social workers are forced to make each day.
• Make emergency services more accessible. Before making the ultimate decision to remove a child to foster care, social workers must properly establish that abuse has occurred. Often, this requires a visit to a “catch clinic” miles away. If the nearest clinic is overcrowded, that can mean visiting a clinic on the other side of the county, which can mean a day’s driving on America’s most congested freeways. Multiply this situation by the 35,000 open cases on the DCFS' docket and you can see why more clinic access in more L.A. neighborhoods would mean better, faster diagnoses and safer children.
• Give front-line workers the tools they need. Millions of dollars have been spent creating databases to track child abusers and keep them out of the foster-care system. And yet, experts who have reviewed Los Angeles’ child protective system point to breakdowns in information sharing that render social workers in the field unable to identify clear and present danger. Databases still lack key information about clients, and most social workers don’t have ubiquitous electronics like iPhones, which would allow us to share and track information from the field.
These common-sense reforms are long overdue at the DCFS. L.A. County should involve its front-line workers in moving them forward. After all, L.A.’s children are counting on us.
David Green and Blanca Gomez are Social Workers for Los Angeles County.
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