Los Angeles County social workers are serious about fixing the child welfare system. We believe strong leadership is essential and that all stakeholders must be involved in the solution. That includes the Board of Supervisors, department leadership, the county chief executive’s office and front-line social workers through our union, SEIU 721. Now that is starting to happen.
As The Times noted in a Nov. 12 article, SEIU 721 “was one of the first entities to raise the alarm about the backlog” in a March letter to leaders in the Department of Children and Family Services to the Board of Supervisors. In meetings that same month with DCFS management, SEIU 721 members requested a thorough independent review of the emergency response system, the focus of The Times’ reporting. Our key issues have been the lack of consistency across 18 offices, the need for training and immediately addressing the emergency response backlog.
We have also pushed for common-sense changes, including cellphones for all supervising social workers and remote service access for social workers in the field.
As a result, social workers are now part of three high-level project teams convened by the CEO office and meeting weekly. We are working together to reform the emergency response system, streamline and improve policies and address training.
As a public voice for social workers, we have recognized that the problems in the department are systemic. Though it’s true that DCFS staff has grown from 3,000 social workers a decade ago to 3,900 today, our responsibilities have also grown. A 2000 statewide study, mandated by the Legislature, recognized this fact and concluded that major changes in law, policies and court decisions require far lower caseloads — and many more social workers — than we have even today. The fact that children are still at risk underscores the huge needs of L.A. County’s families and the need to engage the whole healthcare, law enforcement and child welfare community in serving them.
Headline-grabbing cases have led The Times and some in public office to say the solution is tougher discipline for social workers, not tough system reform. The Times’ Nov. 21 editorial focused on the tragic case of a boy who hung himself after a social worker “elected to leave the boy in the care of the adults he said had abused him.” In fact, The Times’ own reporting on this case showed that the social worker did not have access to information about the boy’s family and history. “Without remote access to the department’s computer system, the social worker at the scene was unable to fill in some blanks that may have changed the decision to leave Jorge at the home,” The Times reported on July 25.
Giving social workers the same tools and level of access as police and other emergency responders is a crucial step forward to preventing child endangerment. L.A. County social workers supported a state law that will make more data about the criminal records of other adults living in a child’s home available to social workers on the case.
The challenges to protecting Los Angeles children are enormous and unrelenting. The headlines have dramatized what we witness daily. Morale among our ranks has never been lower. But what will rally social workers is seeing that everyone in the child welfare system is making progress every day to make children safer.
Larry Golan, Mike Ross, Tony Bravo and Blanca Gomez are DCFS social workers. Gomez and Bravo are on the SEIU 721 executive board, and Golan, Ross and Gomez are CEO project team leaders.