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Unmasking Dean Curtis

Don Thomassen pointing to a report.
“I would bring a case up on the computer and see that something was wrong. I would find that they were claiming a placement but the client had never enrolled in the Curtis program."
Don Thomassen
Santa Barbara County GAIN Social Worker

July 1997

When Santa Barbara County contracted out its GAIN project to Curtis and Associates, the workers fought back.

“I’ve got to hand it to Dean Curtis, he is a good salesman. He bowled everyone over,” one of the workers commented. It is not surprising that an organization that preaches salesmanship as a solution to complex social problems would be good at selling its own program and teaching others to sell it.

But according to Santa Barbara County GAIN social worker Don Thomassen, Curtis’s sales pitch was a little too good. Thomassen, in reviewing client placements and assessments, immediately started finding problems with the Curtis cases. “I would bring a case up on the computer and see that something was wrong. I would find that they were claiming a placement but the client had never enrolled in the Curtis program. What would happen is a person would apply for welfare and then get a job before actually starting in the GAIN program. Curtis would claim the person as one of its placements.” He also found that clients who were placed, then lost their jobs and returned to the program and got placed again, were sometimes counted as two placements.

Thomassen reported his findings to his department supervisor, and eventually to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. The Lompoc workers then did their own analysis, after forcing the department to give them access to all the statistics, and prepared a report that showed that their program had a higher per capita placement rate than Curtis’s pilot in Santa Maria. They also claim that they had a better record for placing long-term welfare recipients and got people higher paying jobs.“ We did six months of over 20 job placements per month. Curtis has never done that in the Lompoc area,” Thomassen reported.

We spoke to a department of social services analyst. She was familiar with the Lompoc workers’ charges, but disputed them. Thomassen claimed that 25% of the Curtis placements were suspect, but according to the analyst’s investigation the discrepancies were not out of the ordinary and were statistically insignificant. According to her analysis, the two programs were producing roughly the same results, only Curtis was significantly cheaper.

What is the reason for the difference between the analyst’s statistics and Thomassen’s? As it turns out, unbeknownst to Thomassen, the department changed the rules for counting placements. When GAIN workers like Carlos Campos ran the program, the program was credited with placements only for clients actively attending the program. Many clients would apply for aid but then get a job before they started the GAIN program. Curtis convinced the department that his program should get credit for anyone his employees contacted, even if the person got a job without attending the program. The rationale? The phone call or letter inviting the person to attend the Curtis program motivated him or her to get a job.

Evidently the Curtis workers have a rather high opinion of their abilities to motivate people. The next worker we spoke with responded, “I have a document right here on my desk. The recipient applied for aid and Curtis contacted the recipient in 1997. The Curtis employee found that he was working and took credit for the placement. The date employment began was in 1995.”

The Curtis Program

The program analyst we spoke with suggested we interview workers from the Santa Maria office to get a more balanced view, since the Curtis program was more fully implemented at that office. So we spoke with Santa Maria GAIN worker Paula Resler. Resler has been a social worker since 1965. “I’ve seen the system from the beginning and saw it turn into the monster it has become,” she commented. What is her analysis of the Curtis program? “They are pathetic. They came in from Nebraska with the attitude that people on welfare are lazy and are being encouraged to stay on welfare by bleeding heart social workers.” According to Resler, the Curtis workers have no sense of the complexity of the problems facing welfare recipients. They are inexperienced and unskilled. (This may explain the high turn-over rate of Curtis employees.)

The Curtis program’s main emphasis is positive thinking and self-sufficiency. Clients are criticized for bringing up past problems or difficulties. Workers agree that the high energy motivation that Curtis offers could be effective for some of the higher performing clients who are job ready, but feel it does little for clients with any vocational block. While the traditional GAIN program stressed remedial education for clients with literacy problems, the Curtis attitude is, “You don’t need education to get a job.”

“Rah-rah” may literally be the only thing that Curtis and Associates can deliver. According to Resler, the Curtis employees have only a minimal understanding of department regulations and are constantly botching up cases. They are clueless when it comes to case management. For example, clients are frequently declared non-compliant because Curtis sends forms to the wrong address. Resler finds herself constantly untangling Curtis mistakes. She also feels clients are not getting services and benefits they are entitled to receive. She suspects that Curtis employees discourage clients from applying for benefits because it goes against the grain of the Curtis philosophy of self-sufficiency. (These charges of poor case management and problems with referrals to other services have been substantiated by the department’s own reports.) Much of the savings claimed by the department may be a result of clients not utilizing transitional services, such as GAIN funded childcare and transportation.


Previously, when clients applied for aid, such as AFDC, they were referred to an eligibility worker and then to GAIN. The first step in GAIN was an assessment of the clients’ needs and the barriers preventing them from successful employment. Clients that were job-ready were sent to job clubs for help with their job search.

Under the new “up-front” program, clients who apply for aid are immediately sent to the Curtis “Self-Sufficiency Center.” A client may get a job before the client’s AFDC is even approved. This up-front system has advantages and disadvantages. Clients who are capable of getting jobs that pay adequately get the program’s job search services sooner. Curtis is able to place clients faster, saving the county money in benefit payments and services. However, the new approach exacerbates the problem of the “revolving door” clients. Many clients are caught in a cycle of seasonal, temporary employment at minimum wage jobs. They go on aid, are placed in dead-end jobs, and return a short time later because either the job ends or they have some crisis and can’t make ends meet.

Santa Maria AFDC worker Ruben Fuentes is a supporter of the up-front program because he believes that it can get people services faster. However, he is very troubled that many clients are just being pushed back into the same dead-end situations without any real improvement to their future prospects. Many of his clients are agricultural workers with little education. They go through the program and get the same part-time, seasonal work. Curtis may get a placement credit, but the worker returns to the system as soon as the season is over. “I don’t know what will happen to these people in two years when their welfare runs out,” he stated, perplexed.

To make matters worse, Curtis employees are holding on to clients who have completed their program. A client who is still unemployed after completing job club is supposed to go on to the next component, an evaluation of vocational needs. Instead clients are being kept in limbo, and if they get jobs while they are in limbo Curtis gets the credit. (Campos documented 264 clients in the Curtis program who are on hold, as of June 30, 1997.) Once again, this increases both the Curtis placement rate and the number of revolving door clients. “I would bring cases up on the computer and find someone waiting for an employment assessment after two years, or someone who has had an incredible number of placements, and you wonder what is happening,” Thomassen reported.

Each year Curtis and Associates must go before the board of supervisors to get its contract renewed. The struggle isn’t over.