It’s been a year since the tragic death of Gabriel Fernandez, the eight-year-old Palmdale boy badly beaten while under the protection of Los Angeles County’s child welfare system. Now, a group of serious-minded professionals, named by the Board of Supervisors to a Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, has recommended reforms, saying that the County’s system is in “a state of emergency.”
To us, as social workers, that is painfully evident every day. We have dedicated our professional lives to keeping these most vulnerable children safe. But we are, as the Commission said, “overwhelmed by caseloads significantly above the national average” and forced to deal regularly with the problem of where to place endangered children when there is a “shortage of safe and appropriate foster homes.”
We feel so strongly that these problems must be addressed that, late last year, we took the unprecedented action of going on strike–not for higher wages, but to improve child safety.
We went back to work only when the County agreed to hire more social workers–not nearly as many as top County officials acknowledge we need to make caseloads manageable; in fact, a little more than a quarter as many.
But we viewed the County’s move as at least a step in the right direction.
We see the Commission’s report in the same vein.
Here is how bad things are, in the Commission’s words: “In eight months of hearing hundreds of hours of testimony, the Commission never heard a single person defend our current child safety system.”
It is a system hobbled by a lack of resources, poor information-sharing, particularly among law enforcement personnel and social workers, and a revolving door of top managers who have, over the years, “devastated morale” by emphasizing paperwork over social work.
Los Angeles County has the money to solve social worker understaffing. It lacks the will. The current department head, Phillip Browning has been trying to operate as a reformer and has told the Board of Supervisors that he needs 1,600 more social workers to reduce caseloads to “an optimal level” – translation: to a level where children would much more likely be safe. He has estimated that would cost $160 million per year. The Board of Supervisors is currently sitting on $1.6 billion in purely discretionary funds. Is the Board saying that keeping children safe is not worth spending one-tenth of that?
The Commission is suggesting a more traditional kind of fix–adding another administrative layer to the County bureaucracy in the form of a child protection czar. We are skeptical this will result in the added resources we need to properly protect these children.
But we do appreciate that the Commission also acknowledged something that media coverage of tragic deaths of children too often ignores: The awful problem of children dying from abuse while under the supervision of local authorities is not just a Los Angeles problem. It is a national disgrace, repeated in many jurisdictions, and often traceable to a lack of resources.
We look forward to working with the Commission and with the Board of Supervisors to make certain that the resources the public dedicates to protecting abused children are used in the wisest possible ways.
But we recognize, and the public should too, that the system can’t properly be fixed as long as social workers struggle with caseloads that are unreasonably high. The Board of Supervisors needs to muster the political will to hire more social workers. It should do so to honor of the memory of Gabriel Fernandez and of all of the other children whose needs have not properly been met and who have, in effect, been abused by the very system intended to help them.
– David Green LA County Children’s Social WorkerExecutive Board Member and Treasurer SEIU 721