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

SB 2030's Findings:
High Caseloads are Preventing Social Workers from Helping Children and Families

July 2000 , Issue 6-3

On May 18, Governor Davis finally released the results of the SB 2030 yardstick study. The final report, entitled "SB 2030 Child Welfare Services Workload Study, Final Report," is available on line at

Local 535 staff, child welfare workers, and the SEIU State Council were crucial in passing the legislation, spearheaded by Assemblywoman Dion Aroner and State Senator Jim Costa, that mandated the study authorizing the report. Once the study was under way, Local 535 field representative Wren Bradley actively monitored its progress and made sure that it would accurately document the work of child welfare workers.

The monumental study provides the hard numbers, spelling out in black and white what social workers have been saying: there are not enough social workers to protect children and serve the families of California. Caseloads/workloads are so high that it is physically impossible for workers to fulfill even the minimal state and federal mandates, let alone have time to provide all the services necessary to repair broken families and keep children from being abused.

Four Goals

The study, conducted by the American Humane Association and Walt McDonald & Associates between June 15, 1999, and December 15, 1999, had four goals:

1. Study the routine activities of child welfare social workers in fulfilling their duties.
2. Understand the time needed to complete mandated activities and practices.
3. Estimate the time needed to engage in best practices.
4. Review the budgetary methodology for child welfare services.

Time studies were conducted on 13,000 social workers in all 58 counties over a two-week period. Focus groups captured information about best practices and activities that would be missed in the statistical work studies.

The report noted that each month child welfare case workers investigate 40,000 reports of alleged child abuse. Workers provide services to roughly 60,000 family members to improve the capacity of families to safely care for their children. Over 100,000 children are in foster care and of those, 75,000 are in long-term placement.

The 500-page study describes all the major changes that have occurred in child welfare since the last workload study in the 1980s. Readers interested in the current state of child welfare are encouraged to read the report, which contains recommendations beyond the scope of this article.

Caseload Findings: What They Mean for Families

The study compared the present caseload standard (based on the 1980s study), the time workers have per case, an estimate of the time it would take to perform the activities required by federal regulations, and the time it would take for a social worker to do the job according to recommended best practices. The findings were summarized by work category.

When someone calls a child abuse hotline or files a complaint, a worker must determine whether a child is in imminent danger and assess the need to immediately dispatch an emergency response worker. The current caseload allows about 46 minutes to make the assessment, while the study estimated that following the minimal federal and state guidelines would take an hour and following recommended procedures would take over an hour and a half.

Once the report is filed, an emergency response worker is sent out to visit the family and determine whether the situation is so serious the child must be removed from the home. When a child is removed, the ER worker must find a temporary home for the child, either with a relative or in a foster home. The worker must then prepare court documents to justify the action. ER workers presently have a little over seven hours per case. The study recommends a minimum of just under nine hours and advises that it would take almost 12 hours to do the job right.

Once the child or family is in the system, it gets much worse. Family reunification workers attempt to repair broken homes by working with parents, providing the services necessary for them to become good parents and, if possible, get their children back. This can mean anything from helping parents get proper food, shelter, and clothing, to getting the parent in to a drug program. During this reunification period the court orders services, and the worker is required to deliver these services in a timely manner and report to the court on the parents' progress. FR workers have about five hours per month per client, while the study estimates that it would take about seven and a half hours to satisfy the minimal court requirements. To do the job right would take nine and three-quarters hours.

Family maintenance workers attempt to provide services to a family so that the child won't have to be removed. They work with children who are still with or have been recently returned to their parents. The workers have about four hours per month per family. The study estimates it would take over eight hours to fulfill minimal federal requirements, and best practices would take eleven and a half hours, or nearly three times as much time as workers presently have for each client.

If the time for reunification runs out and the home is still judged unsafe, the court can terminate parental rights and the child is placed for adoption or permanent foster care. But there is never a guarantee that the child will thrive and be safe in any new home. "You hope the home you place the child in will be better than the one you removed the child from, but that is not always the case," one worker stated. Permanent placement workers monitor the new placements and also provide services to help the child heal. These workers have one of the most important jobs, yet the study found that their caseloads were the worst. Currently they have two and one-third hours per child per month. To fulfill the minimal standards would require almost five hours, and to do the job right would take seven hours.

The Human Cost

In human terms this means that families are being destroyed that could have been saved if workers had time to do their jobs. Parents are losing their children, and the state is paying for costly foster care when it could have been avoided. And the children may still be in danger, because after they become wards of the state, workers don't have time to make sure they are being treated properly.

The situation presents a moral dilemma for workers. As one worker stated, "When I remove a child from a parent, I can only do it in good conscience if I know that we are going to give the parent a fair chance to get the child back, and that means giving them the help they need to become a good parent. I couldn't do my job if I didn't think that was true."

One former child welfare worker used to fantasize about being thrown in jail for contempt of court. "At least then I wouldn't have to return calls and could catch up on reports," she stated. "I loved working with families, but I felt I couldn't do my job in good conscience. I couldn't sleep at night. I worked 50 to 60 hours a week, and I still wasn't doing the job I wanted to do. They [management] would tell me to prioritize, but if you don't have the time to provide services to families, they can't reunify with their children."

There has always been a high turnover of new children's protective services workers, but the caseload crisis has caused an exodus of veteran workers. They are painfully aware of the inadequacy of the services they are able to provide. When asked if parents and children are needlessly falling through the cracks, they shake their heads and recall cases that might have had a different outcome if they'd had the case years earlier, when they had more time to give.