LOS ANGELES, Calif. — The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors today discussed pay changes for social workers as a means to reform the Department of Children and Family Services.

Phillip Browning, the director of DCFS, detailed a number of other reforms he was implementing as part of an effort to prevent deaths like that of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who was left in his Palmdale home despite multiple reports of abuse.

The tot died in May, allegedly after being tortured by his mother’s boyfriend, and his death renewed calls for changes at DCFS and the formation of a blue-ribbon commission to recommend fixes.

Two social workers and two supervisors are set to be fired in connection with the boy’s death.

Browning, who got the board’s go-ahead today to hire an additional 147 employees, said training for social workers is being increased from eight weeks of classroom instruction to a full year, with a focus on real-life situations and field work alongside experienced employees.

A 6,000-page training manual is going to be cut down to a more manageable size and made accessible online with links to training videos, he said.

Employee unions want 1,400 more social workers hired to lessen caseloads.

But even with new hires, better training and clearer policies, some structural obstacles remain, including a pay scale that gives social workers an incentive to move into management, whether qualified or not, according to some members of the Board of Supervisors.

Supervisors Gloria Molina said the problem mirrored that of the teaching profession.

“Why take a really good teacher out of the classroom?” Molina asked.

Molina acknowledged that increasing pay for talented social workers might create unanticipated problems.

“You might have a situation where a social worker makes more money than a supervisor,” she said.

A union leader said it was a “great” proposal.

“Social workers are resigning every day,” said David Green, board treasurer for Service Employees International Union 721, which represents social workers.

Green, a social worker himself, added, “Our number one priority is child safety, and if this is how we can keep qualified, well-trained and committed social workers in Los Angeles County, then we must do it.”

It’s also difficult to keep employees where they are most needed, Browning said. Offices tend to be understaffed in remote areas like Palmdale or Lancaster, or in South Los Angeles, where high crime rates and limited community resources contribute to more complex cases of abuse.

Employees can ask to be transferred after a year, though Browning froze transfers and is negotiating a longer commitment from new hires taking those jobs.

“We’re trying to put in a three-year expectation,” Browning said of union negotiations. “Like the military. You get in and you can’t get out.”

Molina suggested an incentive for social workers handling tougher cases.

Elements in DCFS’ September 2012 strategic plan designed to better serve children range from recruiting and training more foster parents to reduce the number of children forced to live in group homes to using technology like smartphones to make employees more effective. But when it comes to child safety, training and retaining social workers with the right skills is key.

“The biggest problem that we find when there’s a child death … is that social workers haven’t followed their own policies and procedures,” Molina said.

In an interview following the board meeting, Browning said tragedies typically resulted from “a combination of a policy lapse and a judgmental issue.”

Building that judgment, which Browning likened to a kind of “sixth sense,” takes time.

“Workers need to have some reflexes that are intuitive,” Browning said.

Under the new, “more realistic training operation,” law enforcement officers will be brought in to teach investigative techniques, testing social workers’ ability to spot problems during home visits. A “home” is being built to simulate the conditions employees might find when checking out a report of abuse.

Despite the decision to fire four workers and reprimand three others involved in the Fernandez case, Browning sought to dispel any perception that large numbers of social workers are dramatically incompetent.

“If there’s a critical situation, we put someone on desk duty,” Browning said. Only about 10 employees are currently on desk duty, he said.

Elizabeth Marcellino | City News Service