About 200 Los Angeles County social workers demonstrated in front of county headquarters in downtown L.A. on Wednesday, demanding that their contract be reopened to improve working conditions by reducing their caseloads.
Members of the SEIU 721, representing 4,000 social workers employed by the county Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), rallied on the plaza of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, chanting slogans about union power and waving signs that said, “Protect Our Children” and “Children’s Social Workers Demand Real Solutions.”
David Green, union president and longtime county social worker said the Wednesday rally was not about money. Instead, the group delivered a letter to Tim Pescatello, county employee relations manager, asking that the contract be reopened. The union is asking for the county to reduce caseloads to approximately 15 cases per social worker, so they can process cases more quickly and protect families and children.
The union said having 22 cases per worker is “above the accepted rate of 15 per social worker to ensure child safety.” Fifteen cases involving children per social worker should not be exceeded, according to the Child Welfare League of America.
The problem becomes acute with social workers handling cases that involve transferring children from foster care into permanent placements. The adoption social workers can be assigned up to 55 cases per worker, Green said.
When social workers are overburdened, it slows down the process, leaving foster children waiting for months or even years to find a permanent placement, Green said. “The solution is to hire additional adoption social workers. That way, we can expedite the move to permanency and literally improve the lives of people in Los Angeles County,” he said in an interview on Wednesday.
A statement released by the DCFS on Wednesday praised their workers, whom they said were at the heart of the department’s mission, namely protecting children and keeping families together safely. The department is called when a child in a home, or foster home setting, is deemed in danger. And if so, the child is placed in foster care or in a different foster home.
The DCFS said it agrees that assigning fewer cases to social workers is the best practice and that it has worked toward that end.
“Over the course of several years, DCFS has significantly lowered social worker caseloads, as they lead to better practice. While we will continue to strive for improvements, the department remains confident that current levels provide for the safety of children and well-being of employees,” the statement said.
The union reported that DCFS reduced caseloads in several of its 23 regional offices but it remains a problem with adoption workers and when social workers handle emergency calls that require an assessment of the living arrangements, said Roxanne Marquez, a spokesperson for the union.
“The regional offices have seen a reduction” in caseloads, “so we know it can be done (in other areas),” she said.
Marquez said the union helped the county get more funding from the state last year. In return, they have asked for the county to place a limit on caseloads and workloads in their contract.
“Come back to the table and lower caseloads. It is the right thing to do,” Green said.
Part of the problem with social workers on the front lines of child abuse and domestic violence is simply the high-stress nature of the job. A national study by JBS International, Inc. in 2020 found that high caseloads “negatively affected caseworkers’ ability to achieve permanence goals, respond to maltreatment reports in a timely manner, efficiently file court documents and paperwork and attend training.”
An earlier nationwide study in 2018 by Edwards & Wildeman, researchers out of Rutgers University, found that turnover among caseworkers was a leading cause of the problem, and also can be a consequence of workers being saddled with high caseloads and workloads.
The DCFS said it wanted to assure the people of L.A. County “that plans are in place to make sure there is continuity in services for children and families who rely on DCFS.”
In an amended $46.7 billion budget approved on Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors, the county added 123 new staff positions to the DCFS, in an effort to reduce caseloads for social workers.