ANAHEIM — Citing philosophical differences with officials on protecting children from abuse, a group of social workers has presented a proposal to separate children's services from the Orange County Social Services Agency.
An independent children's services agency would include fewer management positions and an unspecified increase in front-line social workers, according to the plan.
Instead of relying on emergency intervention in which children are placed in foster care, the social workers' plan calls for an emphasis on prevention services that keep at-risk children in their homes while social workers help resolve family problems. The plan also calls for increased training programs for social workers.
Philosophical rifts in how government should help at-risk and abused children are a constant in the field of social work, and the differences have been pronounced at the Social Services Agency for years, according to officials. But the county's financial disaster, which led to the elimination of hundreds of social services positions and doubled the caseloads of social workers left behind, has exacerbated the tension.
The proposal already has been forwarded to the Board of Supervisors, which would decide on the move. The social workers acknowledge that the plan needs fine-tuning before the supervisors can seriously weigh it.
Supervisor William G. Steiner, former director of the Orangewood Children's Home and the strongest children's advocate on the board during last winter's bankruptcy budget cuts, said he is still reviewing the plan but believes it merits consideration.
"I know [the social workers'] desire to salvage the preventive programs is very strong, and prevention is certainly important and also cost-effective," Steiner said. "I think we always are looking for more cost-effective ways of delivering services to our children."
Steiner does not believe, however, that preventing child abuse has become less of a priority for either the Social Services Agency or other county officials.
"I guess there's a fear that children's services could get lost in the massive size of the Social Services Agency," Steiner said. "But it's been my experience over the years that children's services has been given a high priority both by the agency and the Board of Supervisors and has not been relegated to the back burner."
The social workers have also presented their proposal to top Social Services officials, who say they have reservations about much of the proposal but are considering it.
"We've heard them out and found that much of their input focused on not so much organizational issues but philosophical issues," said Social Services Director Larry Leaman.
"When you're at a fork in the road, do you take a left or the right?" he said. "They think we should have taken the left and we took the right, so we're [re-examining] those issues."
Indeed some of the social workers on the committee say it matters more to them that abuse prevention become the centerpiece of the department's philosophy than that children's services become a separate entity.
Most of the eight social workers advocating the separation of children's services worked for preventive programs that either were severely cut back or wholly eliminated.
"As things are, we have a system in which out-of-home placement is chronic," said Gary Govett, a senior social worker and member of the proposal committee. "And once it gets out of hand we'll never bring the system under control; without any prevention, a cycle will develop and [the Social Services Agency] will either end up taking away the child from the family or the child will stay and get abused."
At the time of the budget cuts last winter, Govett and other social workers strongly argued that the layoffs and job eliminations would leave children without help until a full-fledged crisis developed. Management officials agreed that the agency would be unable to protect children in accordance with its mission but said they had no choice.
For example, last March Govett said he had 70 families on his caseload--about two times more than are called for in state guidelines--and he was scrambling to visit and counsel them all. Today he has more than 200 cases, all of whom are supposed to get monthly visits and counseling.
Complicating the tensions at the agency is resentment among some social workers that no managers were laid off during the bankruptcy budget cuts. Many were demoted but none actually lost employment.
"Those line staff positions which were lost and cut are endangering children" said senior social worker Christine Ford, who worked for Parents and Children Together, a parenting program that was eliminated. "What makes more sense when you have limited resources, to have people out there on the front lines or a lot of administrators?"
Leaman said that distrust of management probably helped inspire the idea to separate children's services from the agency. He takes issue, however, with their contention that the agency is management heavy.
"There was no management blood in the streets in children's services," Leaman said, "So they're suspicious. But if you compare us to other counties we are actually management light."
The lack of management positions in the proposal is a major drawback to its being taken seriously, Leaman said. The plan does not include management positions for jobs such as payroll, budgeting, personnel and accounting. The workers are refining the plan to address some of these concerns.
"These are all jobs that have to be done," Leaman said. "So basically we're looking at the proposal as a basis for discussion but not a comprehensive organizational proposal."