More than a year ago, pledges to reform one of the nation's largest child welfare agencies followed a report showing that children in underprivileged areas of Los Angeles County receive alarmingly uneven aid. But the efforts to improve that have largely stalled.
Communities with the greatest need for services still have the least experienced child protective staff and those workers have the highest turnover rates. The agency's chief says the disparity has continued because the county and the social workers' union have been unable to agree on how best to slow the movement of employees, who are free under their labor contract to opt out of more challenging assignments, which tend to be in lower socioeconomic areas.
Philip Browning, director of the Department of Children and Family Services, said he wants the union to agree that social workers would have to remain in their positions for at least two years. "Initially, they said they would. Now they don't want to do that. I'm telling them, 'How are we ever going to stabilize?'"
An audit in late 2010 found some of the agency's 18 field offices are fully staffed and produce good results, while others have vacancies and large backlogs of child abuse investigations. The West San Fernando Valley office completed all of its investigations on time, while the Compton office missed the agency's 60-day deadline in 61% of its cases. Nearly a third of the Compton office's social workers were on the job for less than two years.
The problems were also acute in areas of South Los Angeles and Palmdale where child welfare interventions are also often more complex and many workers anxiously await a transfer following what department staffers call their "year of duty." The three offices also have some of the highest rates of children who die of abuse or neglect — a total of 17 between January 2008 and August 2010.
"High stress levels and distance from employees' homes contribute to the high staff turnover rate," the audit said.
"All of the problems we have in DCFS are magnified in these offices," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said in an interview last week. "We cannot afford to have a bureaucratic traffic jam that prevents a solution to a problem that puts children at risk."
Under the county's current agreement with the union, workers are eligible for transfer after one year of service. Browning said he wants to double that time frame for at least some offices, where he is also considering a special pay boost and the ability to limit hiring to people who live in a close radius. He said he regretted that the issue couldn't be resolved in time for the peak hiring season following college graduation. As an emergency measure, Browning froze transfers and is approving them on a case-by-case basis only, but he said the arrangement may be unsustainable and vulnerable to a challenge by the union.
David Green, a social worker and negotiator for Service Employees International Union Local 721, denied that the union had agreed to a limit on transfers in workers' first two years, and he said the organization is not interested in opening negotiations until regularly scheduled talks later this year.
"We want to look not just at staffing, but all the factors involved, including management," Green said. "We want to look at the root cause of these things."
Green said transfers in underprivileged areas are often motivated by the workers' inability to fully help their clients because of the scarcity of outside parenting classes, drug treatment programs and other services needed to help reunite families and close cases.
"People show up to work if they work in a good supportive environment. People will do the commute for a good supportive environment," Green said.
Another union concern is that some managers in the underserved offices have poor social work practices and it might impair workers to spend too much time under them, according to SEIU spokesman Ray Pok.
"This should not devolve into a tussle between management and the union.... It's up to DCFS and the Board of Supervisors to accomplish this by creating a supportive environment with manageable caseloads, labor saving technology, proper training and appropriate working conditions," said SupervisorMark Ridley-Thomas, who represents the Compton area and was elected with millions of dollars in labor support.
All sides agreed that change is slow because of the agency's sheer size. DCFS receives 170,000 child abuse hotline calls each year — the third largest caseload in the nation — and it has 7,300 employees and a $1.8-billion budget.