Caseload State of Emergency
by Richard Bermack
If you spend 15 minutes interviewing a kid, you feel good. Youre lucky if one hour a day is spent with clients, the rest is paper work, according to Diana Flanagan, a family maintenance and reunification supervisor in Los Angeles County, where caseload problems are the worst. Stress levels are so high that workers are leaving the department at alarming rates. Out of a total of 2,600 workers in Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, 26 left in a single month. We cant function because the caseload is out of hand, Flanagan reported. As a supervisor you are responsible for every child, but we get calls and our workers are so overwhelmed that it can take two or three weeks before they can go out, and by then the family has disappeared.
We want to be good workers, dedicated to child safety, Flanagan continues, but the court and the department are micromanaging us to the point our workload is out of our control. The department head feels we should surpass the state standards of services for our clients at the same time we are way over the caseload standards. It is unrealistic. And then if something happens to a child, the worker is held responsible.
The state attempted to set standards, a yardstick, for the number of cases a worker can reasonably service per month. The last study was done in 1982. Workers in Los Angeles report current caseloads of 50% to 100% above the 1982 figures.
But that is not the whole picture. The amount of work
per case has increased astronomically since 1982. Part of the problem
has been that the federal government and the state have mandated more
and more services be provided to clients but have not fully funded the
delivery of the services, so social workers have been forced to make up
the difference. Workers also reported the problems confronting their clients
are much more complex as a result of the hard-drug epidemic and deteriorating
economic conditions that have arisen since 1982.
Los Angeles County dependency investigator Pablo Sandoval regularly works Saturdays and Sundays and recently canceled a long-awaited trip to Mexico. I would rather take the time from my personal life and not get paid than worry about the families, he stated. I cant sleep at night if I dont see my kids. What if something happened? I could never justify it. I feel that Ive signed away my life. Recently an 8th grader in Sandovals caseload was killed. He was shot right between the eyes. I had told him if he kept on doing what he was doing he wasnt going to make it to 18. I feel like there is something I should have done. It took me out mentally for a few days.
To protect themselves and put pressure on the department, workers in Los Angeles and Fresno counties have begun sending their supervisors memos advising that caseloads are so far above the yardstick level that the workers no longer feel that they can adequately monitor the safety and well being of the children.
One of the major factors workers cited for the increased workload is the adversarial nature of dependency court, which many social workers claim requires them to do the work of paralegals as well as social workers.
We need a total redesign of the courts. Twelve years ago we did mediation; we all met and decided what was good for the childYes, the parents were bad, what can we do to get them back on track and what is the best plan for the kids, explains Los Angeles child welfare supervisor Rachel Simon. It has now become so litigious that the attorneys act like criminal lawyers, whose only concern is to win the case, cut the best deal for the client, and make their client look good. Its no longer a matter of you werent a very good parent, and this will help you and help you get your kids. Its not supposed to be about guilt or innocence.
More and more evidence needs to be presented, and that falls on the social workers, even though we are not attorneys. Our reports are not designed to be fact findings of guilt or innocence, but to be social studies on how to help the family.
When I first started, it took approximately six to eight weeks to make a plan for a drug baby. No one would argue. The mother was positive for drugs, the baby was positive for drugs at the birth, mom would go in and say, yes I do use, help me. Six to eight weeks from the date of detention we had a case plan where the mother could start working on getting her child back. Those same cases are now running anywhere from eight to 15 months. That is a big difference, and it is not helpful for the child.
Tony Bravo, Los Angeles children's service worker continued, We have clients who are told by their attorneys not to talk to the social worker, not to agree to any service plan, dont admit to anything that may implicate you, dont cooperate. We get cases with orders that say the CSW is not to discuss the case with the parents. It is no longer about helping kids.
Tensions between the court and DCFS have turned into near warfare in Los Angeles County. In a recent development, the court has started ordering workers to report all details of each case immediately, not only to the court, but also to the childs attorney. Los Angeles child welfare worker and bargaining team member Sara Bottorff explains that this is a substantial increase in workload that the department is trying to place on the workers. The union has filed an unfair labor charge. It is a very dangerous precedent. Anytime the department wants to get around the contract, it could meet with the court and have the court make an order, she warns.
In addition to the unfair labor charge, the union is pursuing other legal challenges to the court action, including taking the matter to the California attorney general.