O.C. Case Draws Line for Social Workers : They Do Good Job, but Must Let Parents Be Parents Unless There Is Abuse or Danger

Orange County social workers generally have compiled a good record in walking the tightrope between removing children from a home too quickly or leaving them with parents who might abuse them. Their performance compares favorably with that of other counties.

But the dangers of overzealousness could be seen in a recent case that an appeals court in Santa Ana correctly felt was so over the line that the court published it as an exemplar for all who help troubled families.

The 4th District Court of Appeal said last month that Social Services Agency workers were wrong to remove a 4-year-old Huntington beach boy from his home because his parents were poor housekeepers.

The court’s opinion also showed why social workers likely were extra sensitive in this case. The boy was identified as “possibly autistic,” meaning he requires more care and attention than other 4-year-olds.


His mother was described as slightly developmentally disabled, meaning it is more difficult for her to keep up with a youngster. The father has been unable to find work because of a criminal record.

The scenario puts extra strains on the Social Services Agency to keep the family together and functioning. But keeping families intact must be one of the agency’s top priorities. The court said in this case the hazards to the child’s health cited by social workers were so “trivial” as to appear to be an excuse for taking the boy away from his parents.

The court said social workers reported dirty and unsanitary conditions last July in the house where the boy, his parents and his grandmother lived. Although the parents improved the living conditions in the next seven months, the social workers worried about their abilities as parents, according to the court.

In April, social workers gave the parents 30 days to fix hazards they identified in a lamp socket, a motorboat outside with a propeller and a wading pool with dirty water. The parents fixed the problems within eight days, but their son was moved to a foster home.

The Social Services Agency conducts good programs to teach people needing help in parenting. Social workers will teach new parents how to shop, clean and make their houses childproof.

But in this case the social workers went too far. The court did a good job in reminding them of what their priorities must be: continuing good parenting programs and removing children only in cases of abuse or the clear danger of harm.