Dependency Court System Overwhelmed
Not Enough Social Workers to Serve Clients
by Richard Bermack
On January 16, 2001 SEIU Local 535 conducted a
focus group in Santa Clara County on issues confronting social workers.
Workers stated that one of the main reasons they feel the county is not
able to fully staff children's protective services is the difficulty in
retaining workers. They stated that the adversarial and abusive atmosphere
in dependency court is one of the issues that is causing new workers to
leave the county. By and large workers have a high respect for the court,
judges, and referees, and understand that the judicial officers are overworked.
However, the workers feel that certain structural problems in the system
are preventing the courts from fulfilling their mission to serve families
is a summary of what workers stated about the courts in a general discussion
about their jobs. They described a downward spiral. Caseloads are too
high because of a lack of workers, so workers don't have time to fulfill
the minimal requirements of their jobs. The courts get frustrated with
the social workers' failures to meet deadlines. Greater pressure is put
on workers, causing more workers to quit. Older seasoned workers are replaced
by rookie workers, who are even less able to meet deadlines and perform
adequately, increasing the cumulative stress level in the courts. The
high turnover makes it even harder for the department of children and
family services to prepare workers adequately to go to court. Many departments
have adopted a sink or swim attitude toward new workers, and unfortunately,
more are sinking than swimming.
caseloads make it nearly impossible for social workers to fulfill
all the Welfare and Institution Code requirements, making them very
vulnerable in court proceedings.
are rightfully distressed with the failure of the department of
children and family services to provide the services required
by law in a timely fashion.
workers are being held accountable for a situation they have no
ability to control.
become an easy target for all the attorneys involved.
social worker is treated like a second class citizen in court proceedings.
workers are subject to attack and abuse and have no standing or
means to defend themselves.
counsel does not represent the social worker, and there is often
a conflict between the social worker's interests and the county's.
social worker is the only party charged with representing the
interests of the family as a whole, children, and parents, and
therefore is subject to attack from all sides.
workers are not necessarily present at in camera discussions,
where their views may be misrepresented and decisions are made
about the case.
is not enough uniformity between courtrooms, even in the same county.
Each referee or commissioner may have different standards for the
parents and workers.
nature of the court system is out of control and no longer serves
the best interests of the children or families.
workers support the intent of legislation that gave each party
an attorney, they feel that it has reached a point where the adversarial
nature has created a climate in which the best interests of the
child and parent have been lost in a legal morass.
feel that cases are determined by a contest of legal maneuvers
between attorneys whose focus is on winning for their client,
rather than being determined by social work standards focusing
on what is good for the family as a whole.
reported that attorneys often tell their clients, the parents,
to refuse to talk to or cooperate with the social worker. This
makes sense from the standpoint of legal strategy, but it makes
providing reunification services impossible, and keeps parents
and children in limbo for a needlessly long time.
workers are often unable to engage in candid conversations with
attorneys representing the parents for fear that the conversation
will be misrepresented in court and used against them.
The social worker becomes the scapegoat for all parties, including
the county. This not only is abusive to the worker, but it sets
a poor therapy model for the client. The authority of the social
worker is often undermined by attacks by attorneys in front of
the client. Well-intentioned regulations, such as "reasonable
effort to provide services," can often be used to reward
clients for failing to take responsibility, such as failing to
get into a substance abuse program, turning the system into a
system has become so much about winning that the hostile conduct
of attorneys can undermine the healing process for parents and
children. Even social workers reported at times feeling compelled
to over state the case against a parent just to prove a point
in court, at the cost of doing psychological damage to the client.
(Social workers in several other counties have reported being
threatened with discipline by their supervisors if they didn't
go along with county counsel's legal strategy, even if that included
the introduction of facts that the social worker knew were false.)
an optimistic note, workers were encouraged by experimental models,
such as Judge Edwards' Drug Court. They would like to see that
type of collaborative model replace the current adversarial court