Are Social Workers
"If you can't be a whole person, how can you help the client? It is pretty clear that if you run yourself to the ground and then try dealing with a client who is clearly depleted, you are not going to have an interaction that promotes health and wholeness."
Jackson was astonished. Here was an agency that was supposed to be about building healthy families, and it was destroying the lives of its workers. "Everything I read in the literature talks about the health issues and family problems from overwork," she states. The classic formula is that children become involved in crime and drugs, because their parents aren't there to raise, monitor, and guide them. Families fall apart and spouses get divorced because they don't have the quality time to devote to their family. They are working all the time, and when they get home they are too exhausted to really be there. "It's crazy," she thought. How many of her fellow workers' children, she wondered, are going to end up in the children's protective services system.
"Besides," Jackson asks, "if you can't be a whole person, how can you help the client? It is pretty clear that if you run yourself to the ground and then try dealing with a client who is clearly depleted, you are not going to have an interaction that promotes health and wholeness." Good social work depends in part on the social worker providing a model of health to the client.
What Jackson saw at the Contra Costa Department of Social Services was a social service agency that resembled a classic case study in dysfunctionality and abuse. New workers were treated the worst. Management took advantage of the probation period to badger and overwork them. If they complained, they could be fired without cause. She witnessed high-handed firings of very skilled people who had a lot to offer clients and the agency. "They were using the probation period as a way to socialize workers into being subservient," she explains. Management seemed to be more concerned with creating a compliant workforce than a skilled one.
"We are supposed to be paying attention to the welfare and safety of children, that is the basic business of children's protective services," says Jackson. "The most horrifying thing to me is that we are not doing that. Cases are handed from worker to worker because of the turnover, and the cases linger in limbo for months. People don't get referred to services on time, they don't get into drug treatment or mental health services, children are not getting referred to therapeutic nursery schools, and meanwhile the client further deteriorates," she states.
"I've always put my family life first. I'm not going to sacrifice my health and family relationships for a job," Jackson states. When she told her supervisor she couldn't work overtime, and wasn't required to, the supervisor mentioned that her evaluation was coming up. "I didn't want to cause trouble," Jackson states. She had hoped to be low key, put in her hours, and then go home and attend to her elderly parents. Her father had Alzheimer's and needed her help. When she worked in academia, she had to accept the abusive hierarchical situation, but here she had a union contract. "I decided I had to take a stand. Many places you get a job and the term of work is not defined, but here it was defined. Yet they were browbeating people into routinely working nights and weekends until they couldn't take it and left. If you don't stand up for the contract it doesn't mean anything," she states.
Jackson became a union steward and tried to make management live up to the contract. She refused to work more than 40 hours. "I can't do everything," she told them, and requested that they list their priorities for her in writing and explain what she was supposed to do and not do if she didn't have time. When the county finally sent her a memo directing her on how to use her time, it listed filing court petitions and court documents as the first priority. Case management and providing services to the clients were the last. Even entering information into the CWS/CMS computer system was ahead of providing services to clients. (See Sidebar page 9: Management's Priorities.) She feels that these priorities reflect the agency's attitude toward clients:. "The county is more interested in criminalizing the clients, by getting them and their children under the jurisdiction of the courts, than providing them services," she explains.
|What Jackson saw at the Contra Costa Department of Social Services was a social service agency that resembled a classic case study in dysfunctionality and abuse.|
Jackson is a court worker, which is similar to a dependency investigator in other counties. She must meet with the parents, investigate the situation, and make a recommendation to the court on whether the child should be removed from the parent and the service plan for helping the parent reunify. But if the workers are in court all the time, they aren't able to see the clients or refer them to services.
So how do workers do it? According to Jackson and others we spoke with, management expects workers to visit the clients they haven't seen and write the reports they haven't completed at night and over the weekend. To make matters worse, not only does the department put workers in the position of having to work long hours, but then it attempts to refuse to pay them. The county requires workers to get overtime pay approved in advance. At one point, so many workers were putting in overtime that they were told the county would not pay overtime for writing court reports.
"It is easy enough to write a report," Jackson explains. "The difficulty is doing the work of seeing the clients, and providing services, which is the basis of the report. Without services, the report is just an empty document." And it is the failure to provide services that is often damaging to the county's case in court.
"They could reduce the workload by dropping all their weak court cases and start providing the clients more services," Jackson states. Instead, the cases become all about the county winning in court by whatever means necessary, and frequently that means county counsel using the social worker as the fall guy.
Jackson went head to head with management in one case in which county counsel not only wanted to blame the problems with the case on Jackson, but also to make statements that Jackson knew to be untrue. When Jackson responded that she was not going to collude with them lying to the court, her supervisor threatened to discipline her. Her supervisor directed her to go along with "the proposed strategy," because county counsel had "insufficient evidence to obtain jurisdiction," and the case was "on shaky ground."
According to union field representative Joyce Baird, this is typical behavior on the part of Contra Costa County. County counsel will make statements blaming the worker to cover up problems with the case. If the worker protests, or explains what really happened, the county retaliates against the worker.
Jackson continued to write memos to her supervisor putting the department on notice that she was falling behind on writing court reports, even though she was following the department's priorities. Then a particularly complex case brought everything to a head. The case involved five children, six different parents, and more than one household. Just doing the math adding up the time required even to minimally visit all the parties involved demonstrated that the case required more than one worker.
During that period, Jackson's mother was treated for congestive heart failure and required several hospitalizations. Her mother had quadruple bypass surgery in December of 1997. Jackson needed to spend time with her mother, taking her to Kaiser and being her health advocate. During this time, the most difficult case that Jackson had was so complex that at one point the judge asked the department to split the case in two, so that two workers could be assigned. The department's response was to assign both parts of the case to Jackson, over Jackson's protest. The department continued to assign additional cases to her as well.
Jackson began a regular stream of correspondence informing her supervisor that she did not have time to provide services to all the clients in her caseload. Jackson repeatedly insisted she would not work overtime, but management continued the overload. She put the department on notice that unless its priorities were changed and her caseload was lowered, her cases would end in disaster for the county. There was no response to her memos. Meanwhile, the attorneys representing the parents and children were getting exceedingly angry that their clients were not getting services, and that Jackson was not providing the reports the court wanted.
Tempers heated up when Jackson took vacation time to attend the birth of her first granddaughter. Management started hinting that the judge, Referee Stirling, was going to put her in jail unless she produced the reports the court was demanding. But Jackson held her ground. She insisted that the department's priorities and her caseload prevented her from visiting the clients and providing services, and therefore, she couldn't write the reports. There was nothing more to say. Finally, Stirling referred the case to Superior Court Judge William Kolin to determine sanctions against Jackson or the department.
"I didn't want to display the department's dirty laundry in public," Jackson says. It wasn't until the judge implied that she could be jailed that she asked to speak out about why she had been unable to comply with the court's orders. She produced the department's memo, stating that providing services was to be her lowest priority. Given her caseload, following the department's guidelines prevented her from providing services to the clients. The court and the attorneys for the parents and children expressed outrage that the department's management was so callous in providing services to clients, and at the way Jackson had been treated. County counsel attempted to refute what Jackson said and asked the court to sanction her. Judge Kolin, swayed by Jackson's testimony, instructed the department to assign the case to another worker, and then fined the department $500 per day until the court reports were completed. He also made a finding that to date the county had not made a reasonable effort to provide services to the clients.
Its strategy having backfired, the department retaliated against Jackson by suspending her for 30 work days without pay. According to Baird, the charges that accompanied the suspension were overly general, vague, and without substantial documentation. Jackson was then transferred to another office and assigned to the emergency response hotline. "They sent me to Siberia," she states.
The union has filed a grievance protesting Jackson's suspension, reassignment, and transfer. "The actions of the county in this case are not only blatantly in violation of the union contract, but raise serious questions about Contra Costa County's commitment to its mission to provide services to the children and families of Contra Costa County," states union field representative Baird. "The grievance we filed is just the beginning."