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Social workers protest perceived role in children's deaths

Fourteen children died last year from abuse or neglect while on social workers' watch. The county workers say huge caseloads are to blame.

April 29, 2009|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Nearly 100 Los Angeles County social workers protested outside a county supervisors' meeting Tuesday, complaining that they had been unfairly blamed for the deaths last year of 14 children whom they had monitored.

Social workers arrived toting handmade signs that read "So many children, so few social workers," and several spoke during the meeting about "systemic problems" with the child welfare system that lead to such deaths, despite what they called their "heroic" efforts.

"I'm here today because I want you to know I believe in my work and the work of my colleagues," said Taunya Taylor, one of 53 county staff members involved in the cases and restricted to desk jobs while the Department of Children and Family Services investigates.

The deaths, all stemming from abuse or neglect, were first publicly reported in The Times last week.

Though supervisors had previously been informed of the deaths, the public tally last week caused some to express shock and outrage. Supervisor Mike Antonovich demanded an investigation into the deaths.

On Tuesday, supervisors unanimously approved a proposal by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas calling for a report from the county's chief executive, Family Services, and the Probation Department about the deaths and social workers' training.

Supervisors then met in a closed session to interview candidates for the position of lead attorney for the Children's Special Investigations Unit, who will be charged with identifying systemic problems in Family Services. The post has been vacant for more than a year.

"We have tremendous social workers and some of our children have been saved by them. But some of them need training and need to follow their own policies," said Supervisor Gloria Molina, citing cases in which a child died after months of malnourishment or soon after a social worker's visit.

The problem of children dying on social workers' watch was not isolated to 2008. In 2007, there were 12 such deaths reported that were attributed to abuse and neglect; in 2006, there were 14.

Shortly after the 2008 deaths became public, Trish Ploehn, Children and Family Services, launched investigations into 10 of the cases. Ploehn has assigned all staff involved in the cases to desk jobs, including 23 social workers, 21 supervisors, eight managers and a public health nurse. The investigations are likely to result in disciplinary action, department officials said.

On Tuesday, Ploehn told county supervisors that she has changed department policy to require a review of social worker conduct within two weeks of a child's death, including a random review of a sample of the social worker's cases. If sampling shows evidence of improper conduct, the social worker will automatically be referred to internal investigations and assigned a desk job. If there is no such evidence, he or she can return to work, Ploehn said.

"I don't want to pull people who don't need to be pulled," Ploehn said. The department employs about 3,300 social workers, she said.

Ploehn said she pulled the workers involved in the 10 cases from 2008 because, "I have some concerns about the social workers' performance."

But social workers told county supervisors it was unfair to reassign them because of the deaths.

They said the 14 deaths resulted from outdated technology, understaffing and unmanageable caseloads -- problems Ploehn cited last week when she appeared before supervisors.

"We are tired of being blamed for a system that is broken and over which we have no control," said Tony Bravo, a supervising children's social worker in Commerce who has worked for the department for 28 years. "We want to be part of the healing process. We know what it takes to keep children safe."

Bravo and other social workers conceded that the circumstances of many of the 2008 deaths were shocking, indicative of "systemic problems" in the way the department monitors and protects children.

The 14 deaths included that of a 1-year-old who died May 8 after a baby-sitter allegedly punished her for jumping on the bed. Family Services had received 11 complaints to the child abuse hotline related to the child's family.

David Green, who has been a social worker in Pasadena for nine years, said that for social workers to better monitor such cases, they need new computers and background-check programs similar to those used by police.

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molly.hennessy-fiske@ latimes.com

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