SEIU 721 leaders, staff and L.A. County children’s social workers huddled in June to plan the fight against recent efforts to scapegoat CSWs for the child safety crisis at L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services.
In the wake of the sensational publicity surrounding the tragic death of Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old boy in the DCFS caseload allegedly tortured and murdered by his mother and her boyfriend, L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey charged two CSWs and their supervisors with felonies in connection with the incident.
“The Gabriel Fernandez case is an unspeakable tragedy — one that has shaken thousands of committed children’s social workers to the core,” said David Green, a Children’s Social Worker who serves as Treasurer of SEIU Local 721.
“While the case has attracted enormous media attention, it’s doing little to improve child safety in Los Angeles County,” Green said. “That’s because the child safety problem in L.A. County isn’t about bad children’s social workers who don’t do their jobs, it’s about good children’s social workers who can’t do their jobs because of a bad, broken system.”
David Green, SEIU 721 L.A. County Michael Green and SEIU 721 Special Projects Director Bart Diener led a strategy session on June 14th with 721 member leaders involved at L.A. County DCFS to develop a new plan for protecting children in the DCFS caseload.
“We need a Roadmap for Child Safety,” said Michael Green. “We need let the politicians, press and the public in L.A. County know that Children’s Social Workers lack the tools and supports they need to keep children safe so we can enlist them as allies to change the picture.
Leaders discussed advocating to reduce caseloads to the optimal 14 to 1 ratio identified in state law, reducing high attrition rates among CSWs, improving training and mentoring of new children’s social workers, improving coordination between DCFS and health and law enforcement agencies to help CSWs better identify threats to children in the home, and other needed reforms.
The same team convened dozens of L.A. County CSWs for a Saturday workshop on how members can better protect children in their caseloads while preserving their own workplace rights in an environment in which top and middle managers are scapegoating frontline workers for departmental problems.
SEIU 721 Deputy General Counsel Najib Koury advised Children’s Social Workers on several tools SEIU 721 members can use to protect themselves given DCFS’ inability to provide sufficient CSWs sufficient resources to protect children in the DCFS caseload:
• Weingarten Rights — Members have a right to have a union representative present in any discussion that could result in discipline.
• Lybarger Rights — Members have the right not to answer questions if it appears they may be charged with a criminal offense. Workers cannot be disciplined for failing to answer questions that may have criminal implications under certain circumstances.
• Assignment with objection — Members were instructed how to document their objections when they are assigned to do work that exceeds limits and ratios spelled out in the union contract or for which they have not been given sufficient time or resources — particularly when these assignments would cause children in the caseload to be placed at risk.