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County social workers seek lower caseloads

City News Service | 7/9/2013, 2:31 p.m.
LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Dozens of county social workers rallied today outside the Board of Supervisors meeting to urge that ...

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Dozens of county social workers rallied today outside the Board of Supervisors meeting to urge that 1,400 additional social workers be hired to shore up the Department of Children and Family Services, which their union characterized as “tragically understaffed.”

Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents the social workers, is negotiating its contract with the county and hopes to lower caseloads and improve training, said SEIU spokeswoman Susanna Leonard.

DCFS officials agree that the addition of personnel is a critical need, though not yet approved as part of this year’s budget, according to DCFS spokesman Armand Montiel.

The plea for more workers comes as the department faces intense scrutiny over the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez of Palmdale, who was allegedly tortured and abused by his mother and her boyfriend, who have been charged with murder.

The tot’s first-grade teacher and others reported the abuse and DCFS social workers conducted multiple investigations into the boy’s welfare prior to his death. On May 22, he was hospitalized with BB pellets embedded in his lungs and groin, a cracked skull, broken ribs, burns, bruises and two missing teeth. He died two days later.

Social workers are overloaded, juggling caseloads of 30 to 40 children, while the administrative workload associated with each individual case has tripled, according to Mellonie Freeman, a 21-year veteran of the department.

Caseloads should come down to 15 to 20 children per social worker so that they can spend more time with the youngsters, Freeman said.

“It’s just really simple math,” Freeman said. “I believe they deserve to have more time with a social worker.”

There are 3,084 county social workers who work directly with children, according to a DCFS spokeswoman, so 1,400 new hires would bolster the ranks by nearly 50 percent.

But others told the board that hiring more workers or spending money on computer systems would not have saved Gabriel Fernandez.

“The abuse was so evident,” Gabriel’s first-grade teacher, Jennifer Garcia, told the board. “I had to watch day in and day out,” unable to do anything other than report the abuse to the authorities.

“Adding on more spending is not going to help reform the system,” Garcia said. “Something else needs to change ... there needs to be more accountability.”

The four county employees involved in Gabriel’s case have been placed on desk duty pending completion of an investigation.