Los Angeles Wants to Turn More Probation Officers into Social Workers

Los Angeles County leaders want more probation officers to pursue social work degrees, and more social workers to pursue careers in probation.

A motion approved by a 5-0 vote of the county’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday ordered the study of a plan to incentivize the pursuit of social work degrees by probation staff, along with recommendations for recruiting more degree-holding social workers into the department.

The motion elicited praise from county leaders and a probation union but drew harsh criticism from one advocacy group.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors said current probation officers would gain job security and new skills through Master of Social Work (MSW) degree programs, while also improving outcomes for young people overseen by the probation department. The board hopes to replicate an academy used by the Department of Children and Family Services to provide training for social workers in partnership with local MSW programs.

“There has been a national discussion regarding the most effective models for rehabilitating youth who have had contact with law enforcement,” according to the board motion. “It is time to reimagine the role of individuals who are best positioned to connect with, influence, and mentor youth caught in this system. [Probation officers] are mandated to care for the safety and well-being of juveniles as well as to provide support, guidance, and resources in custody and out in the community.”

“Decades of research on outcomes for young people show that a focus on treatment and relationship building are the most effective ways to help youth grow into successful adults,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who introduced the motion with Mark Ridley-Thomas, in a statement emailed to The Chronicle of Social Change. “We want to encourage our probation staff, who may not have backgrounds in social work, to access specialized education and training in order to develop their professional skills.”

One union representing L.A. County probation officers, AFSCME Local 685, backs the board’s effort to provide financial support to probation officers who seek to earn a Master of Social Work degree.

“Such a degree will allow additional officers to assist with the more complex trauma cases facing juveniles,” said union president Hans Liang, in a statement.

Liang said there are currently 28 qualified officers who are awaiting promotion to do such work.

“We look forward to meeting with the probation department to determine how to get these members placed where their special education and skills can be best utilized and to determine the proper incentives to encourage our members to return to school on top of their full-time jobs and family commitments,” Liang said.

But members of the Youth Justice Coalition, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group, told the board during Tuesday’s public meeting that they objected to the motion, because it contradicted with many of the recent efforts made to reform the county’s juvenile justice system, including an idea to separate youth from oversight of the Probation Department.

“Social workers don’t carry badges and pepper spray. Social workers don’t send youth to prison,” according to a statement by the Youth Justice Coalition. “This proposal is counter to the values and responsibilities of a social worker. It’s contradictory by training, certification, purpose and ethics of the field of social work.”

Jared O’Brien, a 21-year-old organizer for the organization, said he served eight months on probation as a youngster. O’Brien said he was homeless, caring for his younger brother when he was arrested at 16 “for trying to survive on the streets.”

A public defender was able to get O’Brien’s conviction reduced to a misdemeanor, but the probation officer who oversaw his case never offered any assistance in helping him find housing.

“I honestly don’t think turning probation officers into social workers will help,” said O’Brien. “When I was in probation they never did anything for me. I was homeless multiple times while on probation.”

Social workers enter the field because they care, while probation officers already have a different mindset, he added.

“They’re used to a system of punishment,” O’Brien said.

Los Angeles is home to the largest county-run juvenile probation agency in the nation, with 6,000 staff members monitoring an average of 6,300 youth in camps, juvenile halls and at home. Earlier this year, the board voted to phase out the use of oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray, better known as pepper spray, in county juvenile facilities. Their decision came after a report found that there was too much reliance by probation officers on the use of pepper spray in three juvenile halls and two probation camps.

“In general, staff reported feeling unsupported and ill equipped to effectively interact with youth, especially those with acute mental health and behavioral needs,” according to the report, presented to the board in February by Los Angeles County’s Office of Inspector General. “Specifically, staff consistently identified a lack of effective policies and training that would prepare them to attempt to de-escalate tense situations and avoid using OC spray.”

The board has requested a report back in 60 days about the feasibility of funding for an MSW pilot program in the probation department, a review of current policies supporting the attainment of a social work degree in other county departments and ways to “fill any current or future vacancies” in the probation department through a pipeline of degree programs from local universities.

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Susan Abram
About Susan Abram 11 Articles
Susan Abram is a freelance writer who previously covered public health and L.A. County government for the Los Angeles Daily News. You can find her on Twitter at @SAbramLA.