"The State has not met its obligation to protect and care for abused children.... Consequently, an increasing number of children are growing up broken hurt by their parents and let down by the system intended to be their refuge." Little Hoover Commission, Now in Our Hands: Caring for California's Abused and Neglected Children
Local 535 was founded by social workers who were concerned that their working conditions were preventing them from providing services to children and families in need. County social services departments have been chronically understaffed, preventing workers from doing the job they were trained to do. Local 535 has fought hard at the bargaining table and in the state legislature to improve the services social workers can provide their clients. Yet the situation has continued to decline. More and more children are entering the system, and counties cannot hire and retain enough workers to meet the demand.
The crisis was documented by the California Legislature's
Little Hoover Commission in a report released in August, 1999, Now In
Our Hands: Caring for California's Abused and Neglected Children:
"Because children are entering the system faster than they are leaving it, the number of children in foster care is growing at a faster rate than the number of children in California. In many counties, social workers are overwhelmed by this challenge alone. The system is struggling so much to care for the wounded, that not enough is being done to stop the harm."
According to the report, children's protective services received more than 700,000 cases of suspected abuse in one year. Social workers responded to these reports by assessing if there was a serious risk to the child and whether the home could be made safe by providing services. Repairing a troubled home and keeping families intact is their first priority. Nevertheless, of those 700,000 reported cases, 36,000 children were found to be in so much danger that they were removed from the parents and placed in foster care.
But removing a child from an unsafe home does not guarantee the child will thrive. The foster care system is so overwhelmed that it is failing its children. According to national statistics on foster care, 50% of foster children have not completed high school when they leave the system at age 18, and 45% are unemployed. Twelve to 18 months later, half are unemployed, one-third are on public assistance, one-quarter have been or are homeless, and almost one third of the males have been incarcerated.
Why are children faring so poorly in the system? The consensus of opinion is that for children to thrive, they need to form a consistent relationship with an adult in whom they can confide. That is the social worker's role. But the high turnover of workers and high caseloads have denied many children in the system that one consistent adult. Foster youths commonly complain that their social worker changed so often that the youths gave up trying to form a relationship. "Why should I listen to you? I'll have another worker next month," social workers are often told by their clients.
All children need quality time, and children who have been abused or neglected are especially needy. Quality time means being able to sit down and give the children the undivided attention they need. Unfortunately, time is the one thing social workers don't have to give. The job is so encumbered with paperwork, computer work, and court reports that workers have little time to spend with "their kids." Workers report that even when they do manage to sit down with a child or a parent, they have so much on their minds from overwork they can't always be there for that child. And then often, just when that special chemistry begins, the worker's beeper goes off and the worker has to cut things short to run off to another crisis.
American Humane Association Documents the Problem
How bad is the situation? After years of social workers sounding the alarm, Local 535, working with the California County Welfare Directors Association, convinced the state legislature to conduct a comprehensive study. The study, conducted by the American Humane Association and completed in January of 2000, found that it was physically impossible for social workers to fulfill even the minimal federal requirements of their jobs, given the number of hours in a work week and the time it takes to complete the tasks. It would require twice as many social workers to provide the mandated services to all the clients in the system.
This was no surprise to social workers. The unbearably high workload is driving children's social workers out of the occupation at a rate of 20% annually. And as more workers leave the system, the remaining workers have to work even harder. Earlier it was mainly newer workers that left, but now veteran workers are leaving at alarming rates as well. They no longer feel that they can do their jobs and provide the children the care they need. "I felt like I was no longer doing social work. I couldn't sleep at night," one worker said. "I had a client who I know I could have helped a few years ago, but now I don't have the time," another reported.
After the American Humane Association report was released, Local 535, working with a coalition of children's advocacy groups, succeeded in increasing the funding available to county child welfare agencies by about $100 million. However, many counties were not able to take advantage of the increased funding. Many county administrators were reluctant to increase their payrolls by hiring more county workers, and even those counties that tried to meet staffing goals found that there were not enough social workers available to hire.
In the budget year for 2001 state legislators, introduced a $300 million package to improve the foster care and child welfare system, but because of energy crisis and downturn in the economy $300 million was cut to $18 million, eliminating any possibility of adequately addressing the chronic problems facing the system. The year 2002 looks even grimmer.
The Little Hoover Commission stated that elected officials must make child welfare a priority. But to do that, the electorate must be educated about the problem so that elected officials feel they have the mandate to invest resources in the child welfare system. Unfortunately, few people understand the valuable services social workers provide children, families and the community. Therefore, Local 535 is forming a coalition with other community groups to educate the public, legislators, and the community.
There's a Better Way It's All About Relationships
Children and family services agencies are drastically underfunded and understaffed, but the solution is not just to make the present departments twice as big. Workers want the time and resources to use modern, strength-based approaches that bring parents, children and the community together.
The stereotype is that children's protective services is about taking kids, but in reality that is only the last resort. Social work is about building healthy families. New approaches emphasize strength-based programs, in which workers identify the parents' resources and build on them. For example, using the Family to Family or the Family Conferencing approach, workers bring in relatives, neighbors, and community members, including the children's teachers and parents, ministers, and rabbis, to create an extended family structure to support the parents in caring for the children. Heartbeat wrap-around programs attempt to provide extensive services to keep children out of foster care. Although these programs require investing more resources up front, they are cost effective in keeping children out of expensive foster care.
The best time to help children and families is before there is a crisis. Prevention program that target at-risk children who have been in trouble with the juvenile justice system, are very effective. Social workers team up with juvenile probation officers, psychologists, substance abuse counselors, and other professionals to provide intensive services to get children and families on the right track.
All of these services are very time consuming and require more workers and lower caseloads, but the result is not just healthier families, but healthier communities.