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Child Welfare Articles

Social Worker Awareness Campaign

Overview: Providing Services on the Run

Children's Services Committee Plans Social Worker Awareness Campaign

Social Workers, Foster Kids and Community Suggest Issues

SB 2030 Findings

Special Reports

Dependency Court Overwhelmed

Social Worker Meltdown Series

Protecting Children, Restoring Families, It takes Time


July 2001
Crisis in Transitional Services for Foster Youth -- Independent Living Programs Make a Difference

Housing Is A Major Problem

Leonard Moncure and Jennifer

From Homeless to College Graduate

The social worker may be the only one you can trust

Kathy Garcia: I try to be that one adult a child can feel safe talking to.

February 2001
Assemblywoman Dion Aroner "The union needs to take leadership in providing best practices for taking care of kids and families"

Making a Difference, Jacob Ocampo takes social work to the community

September 2000
Social Worker Awareness Campaign

Riding Along with Bilingual Worker Frederick Machado

Social Worker Heartbeat

February 2000
Are Social Workers Entitled to a Life?
Just Say No to Excessive Overtime


October 1997
Caseload State of Emergency

CWS/CMS Computer Crashes Child Welfare System

Seeing Through The CWS/CMS Mess

February 1997
Adoptions:Parent v. Child

Los Angeles County:Working in the Adoption Factory

Creating New Families

June 1996
Kathleen Schormann and the Unquiet Death of Lance Helms

Family Reunification Workers Speak Out


SEIU Local 535 Dragon--Voice of  the Union-- American Federation of Nurses & Social Services Unioin

Family Reunification Workers Speak Out

by Richard Bermack

June 1996

social worker at desk jesturing

Alameda County FR worker Shelly Mezer

The Lance Helms case and the Polanco hearing have raised questions about the family reunification program and dependency court: Is there too much emphasis on reunification at the expense of child safety? Should the time within which parents may complete a reunification plan be shortened to six months? Is the criminal court model appropriate for dependency court? The Dragon asked family reunification workers in Los Angles, Alameda, San Diego, San Francisco, Fresno, and Tulare counties what they thought.
Family reunification workers provide services and counseling to help parents regain children who have been removed by emergency response workers because of an unsafe home environment. The reasons for removal range from physical or sexual abuse to neglect or homelessness.

The philosophy, according to reunification worker Larry Freed of San Diego, is that parents have a constitutional right to their children, and in exchange for taking the child, the state provides services to the parent to help correct the problem. Services include drug rehabilitation, parenting classes, and monetary and housing assistance. The court orders a reunification plan that the parent must complete in 12 to 18 months to regain custody. If the parent is unable to complete the plan, the child is referred to permanent placement for either adoption, long-term foster care, or legal guardianship.
Family reunification provides a window of opportunity for change. Shelly Mazer, a family reunification worker in Alameda County, described the dynamics: “We get the parents in an extremely vulnerable period of time. Their child or children have been removed. They are dealing with their sense of shock or loss. If we establish a relationship of trust with them, they may be responsive and may be able to make positive changes.” Unfortunately most of the workers we spoke with estimated they are able to return less than one-third of the children, and many of these children end up back in the system later. “If the goal is reunifying with families, we are not very successful, but we see success as establishing a resolution that people can live with and move on positively,” Mazer explained.

With the poor prognosis for reunification, many feel that the reunification time should be shortened to expedite permanent placement in a safe, stable family where children can get on with their lives. The younger the child, the more adoptable he or she is. This is the rationale behind legislation to shorten the reunification period to six months and to change the priority from reunification with the biological parent to protection of the child’s safety and well being.
According to Craig McCracken, a FR supervisor in San Francisco, “Children stay in the system too long, when they could have been adopted right away. We need to give every client a reasonable opportunity, but we also have to consider the age of the child. At 12 months we look very carefully at whether the parent will be able to reunify at 18 months, and don’t very often go the extra 6 months unless it is likely. My inclination would be to evaluate them at six months and make it easier to terminate.”

Substance abuse is the stumbling block confronting most of these parents. With drug recovery programs requiring six to 12 months, many workers feel six months is not enough time. Elaine Brown, FR, Los Angeles County, expressed the opinion of many workers: “I don’t like the idea, I think parents need more than six months to deal with something as serious as drug addiction. Sometimes it takes more than 18 months. I have a case right now where mom went into a drug treatment program, she left, she got back out there again, she started using again, she finally came back, got into another drug treatment program, and started to do very well. She was past the 18-month period, so instead of having her kids go up for adoption or legal guardianship we kept them in long-term foster care, so that after she completed the program she could get the children back. She needed the additional time.”

John Ikerd, FR, Tulare County, feels that six months is not enough time to reunify but, he could evaluate the likelihood of success for most clients in six months and decide which ones to terminate and which to continue with services. However, he warned that many clients have surprised him long after he would have written them off. He worries that these clients would fall through the cracks under the proposed changes.
But many workers felt that six months was not even enough time to evaluate a client. Robin Luckett, FR, Alameda County, said, “Every case I get, I go into it believing that they will reunify, no matter what. I have to do that to work here, I have to believe that parents will be able to reunify. In reality I successfully reunify maybe five percent, but it takes at least seven or eight months to sort out.”

social worker looking pensive
Lauran Michael

Lauran Michael, FR, Los Angeles County, is against changing to six months, but thinks it should be easier to terminate right away. She explained, “If there is a case where a woman has had four or five drug babies and this is number six, I think we should be able to just take the baby and adopt it out. But if this is the first or second baby and it is a young mother, she might just need some time.”

Most of the workers we spoke with agreed that there should be more flexibility, and that after the “x” number of drug babies, or the “x” number of times a child returns to the system, immediate permanent placement should be an option. However, what that “x” number would be, no one was ready to say. “It is not an exact science,” a worker commented. And even the workers who were the most pessimistic about their clients quickly referred to a client who, long after the worker had given up, suddenly turned around and became a model success story.

social worker with a questioning jesture
Benelia Terry

Family preservation is the last stage in the reunification process. Inger Acking and Benelia Terry, family preservation workers in Alameda County, explained the complexity of their task.

Terry: “Many parents are so angry and hostile in the first six months towards what has happened, and what the court is saying they need to do to get their child back, that they are not even ready to think about changing their life around. My typical client is a female, non-high school graduate, who started using drugs and got pregnant as young as 14. Now in her late 20s she has finally matured enough to make a choice. Before then, it is up in the air, because they still have their teenage years to go through.”

Acking: “When parents get clean and sober they start dealing with their own issues of the abuse they suffered growing up—their own painful childhoods that led to using drugs—normally in recovery they need to be clean and sober for 12 months to deal with themselves, before they can really start to deal with what was going on with their kids, but instead we are returning the kids immediately. It is a set-up. It is important to return as soon as possible, but the parents need to be recovered and safe.”

Foster Care Not a Perfect Solution

social worker with briefcase standing under the sigh of a SRO hotel
Helga Zimmerer

San Francisco FR worker Helga Zimmerer opposes the proposal to shorten the time for reunification as a short-term solution. “In the long run children want to be with their [birth] parents,” she said. “The problem is the lack of services to hook these parents up.” She also pointed out that foster care is not a magic solution. “Children have been killed or abused in foster care too,” she cautioned.

However, Jill Stewart, journalist and expert on infant deaths, told the Dragon that statistically, deaths or injuries in foster care are uncommon. Most deaths and serious abuses occur in the home of the biological parents. According to Stewart, the dangers of foster care homes are a myth.

Most workers agree that if there is any possibility of sexual abuse or physical physical danger, the child should be in foster care. However, the emotional impact on all parties of removing the child shouldn’t be minimized. And finding the right match of child and foster parent isn’t always easy. Mary Ann Jordan, a continuing worker (FR) in Tulare County, stated, “I’ve seen kids tossed from foster home to foster home. They don’t feel love, they don’t feel they belong, and they don’t do well in school. Then they get out and have a baby and the whole cycle starts again.”

Jordan feels that unless the child is in danger, the child is usually better off in the home of his or her biological parents. She would like to see a more active family maintenance program providing services to strengthen and correct the problems in the home before the child is removed.
Wren Atilano-Bradley, FR, Monterey County, works with rural Spanish-speaking immigrants, many of whom are appalled by the drugs and criminal life styles they see around them. Their issues are abuse and neglect. They take the program and services she offers very seriously. Bradley worries that with the shortage of minority foster homes, the shortening of the reunification period to six months would cause more kids to be placed in families with a culture different than their own, creating identity problems for the child and raising the question of cultural genocide. This issue is particularly relevant in crowded metropolitan areas like San Francisco, where according to McCracken the high cost of housing and tight foster care regulations have led to a shortage of eligible minority foster homes.

Dependency Court v. Common Sense

Many workers feel that there are already regulations in place to allow termination of the reunification process for clients who show no prospect of success, however, the cumbersome court process can take longer than waiting out a 12 month reunification plan. In general workers felt the court system to be the log jam for quickly placing kids, and to be out of touch with the reality of social work.

Tony Bravo, family preservation, emergency response, Los Angeles County, explains the difficulty with the courts: “It seems like two different worlds. We are dealing with child safety, and they are dealing with legalities. If somebody can raise a technicality, he wins the case. County counsel face intimidation from the hearing officers. They know the way these hearing officers think, so they kind of pressure the worker to tailor their reports based on what the hearing officer likes. They will say, ‘This hearing officer is not going to go along with this but if you maybe recommend something differently. . . .’ In other words, they will say, ‘Change your recommendation to please the court.’”

In the hope of obtaining more aggressive representation, Los Angeles is considering a pilot program in which district attorneys will provide counsel for Department of Children and Family Services in cases involving physical abuse.

The problems with county counsel in Los Angeles was not echoed in other counties. Most workers reported that despite occasional professional disagreements, county counsels do a very good job. “They do a better job than many of the private attorneys,” according to Zimmerer of San Francisco.
However, many workers have problems with the overly adversarial-legalistic nature of dependency court, which is based on the criminal court model. Because one of the functions of criminal court is to prevent unjust punishment of the defendant, the state bears a high burden of proof in criminal cases. Criminal defense attorneys ordinarily use every available legal maneuver to keep their clients from being punished. In dependency court, the “punishment” is denial of custody of the child. Although workers feel the parents should have an advocate, they feel that the court’s mandate should be to protect the child’s safety and interests.
Many workers feel hearing officers and dependency court attorneys should be trained in social work and child abuse issues. Counties have used social workers to conduct training for the courts. Counties are also experimenting with the use of mediation instead of dependency court.

Reasonable Efforts Versus Unreasonable Burdens
Workers find the courts’ interpretation of the “reasonable efforts” requirement particularly odious and counter-productive. Luckett, LA, explained the requirement: “We are mandated to provide services, even if that means chasing someone down who has shown in every other way that they have not been involved and don’t care about their kids. We are legally accountable to show that we attempted to provide services. Children can be returned on that basis even if the client hasn’t complied and the home is still unsafe.” A parent’s attorney can argue that not enough effort was made, and the court will return the child, regardless of common sense. An extreme, but not unusual example, Luckett has a client who is serving 25 years to life for attempted homicide on a police officer. “I have to provide him services,” Luckett complains. “Write him letters updating him on his child’s health and well being, send him self-addressed stamped envelopes, respond to his collect phone calls, try to set up appointments with his counselor, try to find him NA meetings, AA meetings, and parenting classes while he is in maximum security. He will never see this baby until it’s an adult. It is irrelevant. The infant needs another father.”

Many workers also feel the “reasonable efforts”requirement creates a bad therapy model by preventing the clients from taking responsibility, for example, workers are often blamed for a client’s failure to show up for drug treatment. According to Mary Ann Jordan, “When I go to court, I feel it is the social worker on trial. We are blamed for the parents failure to comply. The parent should be held more accountable. The system has become an enabler for the parents.”

Smaller Caseloads and More Services Needed

Although workers are split on many of the issues, they all agree that the regulations are not the main problem. The main problem is workers do not have time to do their jobs. Not surprisingly, we heard glowing reports of successful outcomes from workers like Larry Freed and Loretta DeCunzo in San Diego, or Bradley in Monterey, who have caseloads in the 20s, and horror stories from workers in other counties with caseloads in the 40s and 50s. In Los Angeles, workers have put the department on notice, through contract language, that they will not be held responsible for problems when caseloads are beyond the danger point.

Regulatory reform will accomplish little if the workers aren’t given the time and the resources to do their jobs and to carry out the reforms.

The Dragon would like to thank the following workers for their help. Ron Luna, Fresno, Giselle Hulbert, LA, and Kathy Donovan, Alameda County.