27 Nov A Social Worker Speaks Out
By Almira Garza
My life’s work was supposed to be helping children. Now I feel like I am in the business of herding cattle.
Those are difficult words to write, but they reflect what many social workers experience at the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). The system is broken across the region, but here in South L.A. we get hit the hardest. For social workers, “here” is not just our job, it is also our home and community. And it is where at-risk children and families in crisis need us most.
I am a children’s social worker in emergency services for Vermont Corridor. I am called upon when a little boy or girl, terrified and inconsolable, is a witness at a crime scene where he or she may have lost a loved one. Maybe the child is brought to the ER covered in blood and bruises. Or he or she is the subject of a 911 call from a concerned neighbor who suspects the child is a victim of neglect or sexual abuse.
We need time to connect with these children, to earn their trust and place them in a safe foster home, hopefully with a known relative. We need to help the child and family access counseling or other vital services. But most of us juggle between forty and fifty cases at a time per month — over three times beyond recommended safety standards.
Our entire city mourned the tragic murder of Gabriel Fernandez, the 8-year-old boy from Palmdale who died in May. I stay up at night praying that the children I oversee never suffer the same preventable fate.
If only the County would invest resources in the DCFS to protect our kids. DCFS Director Philip Browning determined 1,400 new social workers were needed to meet the needs of at-risk and foster youth in the county. But neither he nor any elected leader has proposed a plan to accomplish this goal.
Further, there are only seven out of 3,000 social workers assigned to oversee “kinship” services – services for adults and families who foster relatives – even though more than 50% of children removed from their homes are placed with extended family members. We need to recruit enough social workers to adequately protect children’s health and safety but also assign them where their support is needed most.
Social workers in Service Employees International Union, Local 721, who have been working without a contract since Oct. 1, are united behind an action plan. We are negotiating with county leaders to recruit and train the 1,400 social workers we need. If we recruit and ready thirty-five social workers per month starting in January, we could have 420 trained social workers in the field by the end of 2014. Within a little over two years we can reach our goal of 1,400 social workers. It’s pretty simple – it only requires political will.
We are also using everything at our legal disposal to enforce safety guidelines. Earlier this month, we sued the County for failure to comply with orders to reduce the dangers posed to children at our Compton office.
We are reaching out to the public for support. We need you to pressure the L.A. Board of Supervisors to embrace our plan so social workers will never be ignored again.
I entered this profession thirteen years ago because I am grateful for all I had growing up. Now I want to give the same thing back to every child.
Garza is a social worker in South L.A. and a member of SEIU 721.