NASW California Statement on Indictment of DCFS workers

The news that four Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) workers have been indicted for criminal child abuse and falsification of documents in a 2013 case shook the social work world not just in California but across the country.

A child death is a tragedy and we all mourn the loss of Gabriel. At the same time, indicting county workers for doing their jobs in a flawed system where some children die, and making it a blame game will not fix a fundamentally flawed system nor will it prevent future child deaths.

NASW California Executive Director Janlee Wong

NASW California Executive Director Janlee Wong

No one likes to hear this, but many child deaths are probably unavoidable. On average there are a little more than 100 abuse-related child fatalities a year in California. About half or so of those cases have some history with or are involved with the local Child Protection System (CPS). Large and small counties are affected. Poor and non-poor families are affected. We all are affected.

One of the misconceptions in our system is that if the child is involved with the CPS system, they will be 100 percent safe. In our world, nothing can be 100 percent. Should we try to get to 100 percent safe and zero child fatalities for children known to the system? Of course we should. DCFS has made strenuous efforts toward that goal with hiring hundreds of new workers and developing additional training, assessment tools, and more.

There’s something wrong however, when there are massive numbers of case worker vacancies because workers cannot sustain themselves under the burdens and stresses of these jobs, and for every two workers hired, at least one leaves. Or if you have to start by providing weeks of basic training for workers who should have already been trained in how to work with challenging and difficult situations by having a background in the profession of social work.

Children who need our protection need not only the best-trained workers, but they need those workers to have manageable caseloads and a well-functioning system that balances the courts, the provision of services, the care and management of a child and family’s case through an incredibly complex and bureaucratic system.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) believes that the best trained professionals are those with masters and bachelor’s degrees in social work. Professional social workers are trained in the NASW Code of Ethics from day one and throughout their social work academic program. All professional social workers learn to support families through the difficult and complex life experiences each of us may encounter and in which any may be overwhelmed. And, many receive specialized training in child welfare. According to our information, only one of the four indicted workers has been identified as having a degree in social work.

Catharine Ralph, NASW California President

NASW California President Catharine J. Ralph

Degreed social workers aren’t perfect either and some make mistakes. We won’t know whether these workers made serious mistakes nor how bad any mistakes were until the justice system finishes its work.

But to show that this community is taking its youngsters seriously we would like to see a major reform of the child welfare system that involves a much greater effort on prevention and early intervention, changes in the working environment to reduce worker turnover including a reduction in paperwork/caseloads, and more emphasis on workers spending their time with families to provide treatment interventions instead of primarily case management.

We’d also like there to be more and continuous ethical training for all levels of child welfare staff including a Child Welfare Management Institute that balances the sometimes conflicting issues of budget, caseload sizes, and sound ethical treatment of clients.

In the most serious cases, we need to find better ways to monitor CPS-involved families in their homes and communities rather than perfunctory once a month visits, starting with smaller caseloads for each worker, and taking into account the amount of time it actually takes to do the visits, given traffic conditions in each area being served. While civil libertarians might argue against such intrusiveness, the fact of the matter is that after the family comes to the attention of our child welfare system, they’ve already been identified in their community as putting their child(ren) at risk, and those children found to be in such vulnerable circumstances deserve their community’s support in protecting them.

Child protection is the most challenging service the counties provide. It’s time we give it our best thinking on how to reform the system so it is treatment oriented, anti-oppressive, adequately resourced, and conducted in a positive working environment so well-trained workers will stay. Ethical conduct should be the highest value in performing the work rather than managing the budget with unworkable caseloads.

Janlee Wong, MSW, NASW California Chapter Executive Director

 Catharine J. Ralph, MSW, LCSW, PPSC, NASW California Chapter President

 

15 comments

  1. Don't talk to DCFS

    If you suspect criminal physical or sexual abuse call 911 to get the police. DCFS / CPS should not be investigating crimes. DCFS / CPS agencies routinely cause harm to families because they try to overstep their purpose which is to find placements for children that police take into protective custody.
    The best way to protect yourself and your children from the horrors of DCFS is to never speak to them in the first place. I have been a foster parent and have adopted three children from Los Angeles County DCFS. Even with that, they traumatized my six children when they stormed my home with armed deputies based on a false anonymous allegation to the DCFS hot line (it was later proven to be by one of the birth mothers and her Moranic friend). When I started posts such as this one to advise people of their rights, DCFS Directors Armand Montiel and Xiomara Flores – Holguin retaliated against me by directly contacting my employer in an effort to silence me. My advice to everyone everywhere is to never speak DCFS, never let them into your home, never let them see or speak to your children, never give them any information about your family, and never sign anything from DCFS. They can not legally enter your home without your consent, an emergency (such as a child screaming for help), or a warrant. Even with a warrant, you and your children can not be compelled to speak to DCFS; you should all continue to exercise your right to remain silent. If you think DCFS will return with a warrant, move or go on vacation. Most importantly, never become a foster parent.

  2. I have worked in the social work field since 1975. The last 20 years made me believe agencies need to
    look at the ‘work’ load, not the ‘case’ load. I worked with families that I could spend my whole 40 hour work
    week assisting, and families I spent only 30 minutes a week assisting.

  3. Though I am not familiar with the intricacies of this story I am not surprised by it.

    I worked as a LCSW for Los Angeles County, Department of Mental Health for a decade. It’s a profoundly flawed and broken system and scapegoating social workers is not a long term fix for this broken system; as professional social workers do not usually have a say about the policy and practices of the county. They just try to do the best job possible with the least amount of resources while working under a system of management that is highly politicized and non-supportive of the work being done.

    It’s truly sad to think of these tragedies, where children have suffered from Connecticut to California, and where we, as a society, seem to be increasingly blind to the real costs of having broken social service systems in charge of helping the most vulnerable in society. These bureaucracies need to be changed, not from the bottom up but from the top down. And until this happens the vulnerable in society, and by extension perhaps everyone in society, will only witness the escalation of the mind numbing catastrophes that seem to target vulnerable populations.

  4. It doesnt matter if you have an MSW or not…workers perform CASE MANAGEMENT…YOU DO “SOCIAL WORK” on your own time in the Department…I worked for the Departmen for 23yrs..those of you like NASW are quick to question non MSW’S but help to ensure the liberalization of the LGBT effort and status within the Department.

  5. Thank you for this piece. An additional component of the problem is the emphasis that the leadership of county child welfare agencies places on maintaining compliance statistics and avoiding liability. While these laws and regulations are designed to improve practices so that children are interviewed and assessed timely, an unintended consequence is often the creation of a working environment in which mistakes must be avoided at all costs. Instead of professional learning communities, in which mistakes are seen as areas for further growth and understanding, many child welfare agencies create a culture in which social workers are terrified of something bad happening on their watch. Obviously, no one wants bad things to happen to children, and child welfare social workers are under tremendous pressure to ensure that kids are safe. But, as you so rightly point out, child protection cannot prevent all child fatalities or maltreatment. So often, we come in after the fact — something bad has already happened — and it’s our job to figure out how to keep something bad from happening in the future. We are humans (i.e. imperfect) making decisions about human behavior (i.e. something inherently unpredictable). When we are overloaded with tasks, overwhelmed with high caseloads, and demoralized by the revolving door of social workers coming and going, errors are many times more likely to occur. When workers are fearful of making a mistake in a blaming and fault-finding county culture, they are much more likely to be tempted to behave in unethical ways (falsifying documents, leaving out critical information, etc). I would love to see your proposed Child Welfare Management Institute take on balancing the worthy goal of striving to reduce child maltreatment with the awareness that mistakes will be made, and child welfare social workers need to be supported to learn from their mistakes and become even better. Retaining staff is, in large part, based on the ability of the employer to acknowledge the trauma that social workers carry, to support them in managing the effects of this trauma, and, when bad things happen, looking first to the system itself to see how it can be improved, rather than looking first to blame and discipline the worker.

  6. As a registered social worker, from across “the pond” I sympathise with my colleagues. I am taking early retirement after 25 years. I only survived this long by working part-time after 10 years. Current training never prepares you for the emotional impact of social work. One study suggests that we have an “emotional curriculum” along side the academic curriculum. The practice placements are also crucial in helping us develop within the real world of social work. Micro management is not a solution either as social workers will not learn to trust their own integrated practice. However, team work is essential and joint working allows better objectivity in complex situations. Social worker have a short life before experiencing burn out. Even though I have practised meditation every day for 40 years I still struggle with the emotional impact of social, which is exhausting. Moreover it can impact on your personal and private life, as we don’t want to deal with more problems when we get home from work. In order to assist people social workers need to avoid burn-out. The joy of social work is when we have made a positive difference in someone’s life. So we need to see the bigger picture at the start of a social workers career. How will a social worker deal with the inevitable emotional toll their work takes in 10 years time? You wouldn’t expect a soldier to be in battle for more than 10 years would you? http://www.beds.ac.uk/news/2013/january/social-workers-life-expectancy-just-eight-years

  7. Thank you for your intelligent reaction to the crisis in Los Angeles County. I am the co-author of A Cultire of Fear; An Inside Look at Los Angeles County’s Department of Children & Famiky Services. I worked with the supervisors who are currently facing charges. FYI: They were two of the most ethical Dcfs employees I ever worked with. The supervisor position is doomed and I won’t go into that now, but the way the Dcfs conducts its business needs to change. Thank you again for addressing this.

    • That’s a pervasive problem; the “top” making decisions for social workers on the front line, who don’t know what they are doing! Overwhelming social workers in this field creates risk for the youth and families they are serving. It’s disgusting. As a social worker in a CA CPS agency, I’m often frustrated, the past 10 years, at the inability or unwillingness of our superiors to support the workers, instead they are thumbing us down and using a oppressive means to punish workers who arent getting their paperowrk or compiter entries done on time. No solutions, just punitive reactions. I’m so done. I’ll create another way to support these families! CPS is BROKEN.

      • Yes it starts with upper management far removed not willing to go ride along and then it perpetuates no reasonable law updates

  8. Thank you for saying this. I once worked for this department and left after my own mistreatment by supervisors and administration. I’m glad to hear that not all these “Children’s Social Workers” were actual Social Workers. It’s a shame that DCFS continues to tarnish our degrees by naming their staff social workers. Thank you NASW for your stance and eloquent response to the situation.

  9. This is a t horrific and shameful tragedy. Yet right now, there are more children in life threatening situations as I write this…all over the country. So wrong and beyond sad. Just like that we lose a child to abuse and neglcct. Thanks for shining a light on the situation… I believe we already know the problem… Just ask any Social Worker at CPS . As a professional sSocial Worker myself, I know that Social Workers belong in Social Work positions.. We got into the profession to get this education, this training and have this career. It really is not a job, it is more of a calling. Having said the obvious, there is no place for politics when it comes to children at risk. Money is there for more Social Workers and lower case loads…starting there with qualified Social Workers to do the jobs they are educated, trained and have the skill set to do can only help. No downside at all with any of this simple plan . Sorry for the loss of an innocent child and a life that had meaning and importance.

  10. Thank you for this statement. I’ve read several news articles about the DCF in Los Angeles. Apparently, they (like many such government-funded agencies) have multiple opportunities to improve their processes. I don’t know why the two caseworkers and two supervisors were fired, but do know that errors are 15% by people and 85% by processes. I also agree with the likelihood that hiring trained professional social workers may improve their outcomes (which could help the 15% contribution to errors).

    It is hoped they have contracted a Process Improvement professional who can facilitate some Root Cause Analysis, and then conduct improvement processes that will build upon their successes, and lead to fewer adverse outcomes. This will involve the case workers themselves to map processes, identify barriers and identify/implement solutions. The PI professional can also help leadership create balanced workloads and subsequently determine adequate resources that are value-added to the consumers. It CAN be done, if the leadership will welcome it.

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