The mother had lost her children to foster care after injuring them in a drunk driving crash. Now her kids were back at home and a social worker was sitting at her kitchen table, trying to figure out if they would be safe with her.
Mom was disheveled, dodging questions and stumbling when she walked. Her overbearing boyfriend showed up unexpectedly and hijacked the conversation, butting in whenever the social worker tried to talk.
The social worker finally threw up her hands and walked off. Another took her place, then another and another.... They wound up frustrated, uncertain of whether mom was simply tired or on drugs.
Fortunately, this bout of indecision didn't put children at risk. The encounter, staged at Cal State L.A., was part of a training session for social workers by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.
The drug-using mom was social-work veteran Beth Minor; her boyfriend was played by Warren Ondatje, a sheriff's deputy. The rotating social workers were learning the ins and outs of a job that feels very different when you're in a stranger's kitchen than it did in a college classroom.
The simulation is part of a revamped training process that replaces eight weeks of PowerPoint presentations about policies and procedures with a year-long program that gives inexperienced social workers small caseloads and lots of hands-on training that includes role-playing, ride-alongs and mentoring.
That should better prepare caseworkers to sort through the social, economic and cultural issues that fracture families.
It's a change long overdue in an agency in which poor training has been blamed for social worker mistakes that contributed to the deaths of more than a dozen youngsters in county care over the years.
"They were having to learn on the job, and that was just so stressful," said department director Phillip Browning. "They had the theory, they had the textbook stuff."
But that hadn't prepared them for the complicated process of policing parents, protecting children and preserving families.
The program is a product of a collaboration between the county department and local universities. The simulations will be used for more than training professionals. They'll become part of college social work courses.
Students and professors at Cal State L.A. and Cal State Long Beach helped design and construct the sets: replicas of a courtroom, a hospital and an apartment, with realistic-looking props, including cockroaches and cocaine.
There were three scenarios going on Friday when I visited Cal State L.A: The drug-using mother, a teenager having trouble adjusting to his foster home and a session with foster parents whose religious convictions were making life hard for their gay foster child.
Watching the young social workers try to sort things out gave me a sense of the challenges they face. In the simulation of the drug-using mom, the social worker had to be part cop, part teacher, part psychologist — demanding a drug test, giving her parenting advice, probing the dynamics of her romance.
The process is often adversarial, despite their best intentions. Social workers see themselves as helpers, but parents tend to see their scrutiny as a threat.
"It's a difficult balance," Minor said. "It's easy to overestimate your authority. The sense of being in someone's home tunes them in to the little things that can help defuse conflict."
And the experience of role playing in a safe environment helps develop confidence and builds good judgment, Minor said.
Minor and trainer James Ferreira critique the trainees, gently, when each round is done: Too much jargon. Not enough eye contact. Too many softball questions. Don't make promises you can't deliver. Don't let a lie slide by.
Some seemed innately confident, displaying a natural mix of tenderness and grit. Others tried so hard to be friendly they didn't get the information they needed.
"It's a big jump from being in the classroom, and some are reticent," Ferreira said. "They want to be liked. Empathy is nice. But if all you do is empathy, you're not doing any good.
"They're learning how far they can push themselves and their clients," he said. "They're learning to focus on one thing: How does this impair parents' ability to provide a safe environment for their kids."
Director Browning expects to hire 450 social workers by the end of this year. They will each be expected to go through dozens of simulations, and he won't be surprised if some bail out.
"Some of them may decide they don't like this work; 'I didn't know it was as difficult as it is.' That's OK to say," he said. "It's better for everyone when we know that early on."
Before a family is needlessly split up or a child left at risk.