The unsettling arrest of four social workers last week has had a chilling effect on the country’s largest child welfare system.
On April 7, four Los Angeles County social workers were charged with felony child abuse and falsifying public records as a result of the 2012 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez. The Palmdale boy died as a result of injuries caused by his mother and her boyfriend. County social workers were later investigated for missing several troubling signs of abuse.
What is being perceived by many as “justice” in an innocent child’s death will create a county that will be crushed by more detentions of children, higher caseloads for social workers and an attack on a system of the most vulnerable parts of our society.
The roots of this attack are nothing more than a campaign to further one elected official’s political career. This week I gathered with hundreds of my co-workers at the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to protest this assault that will set the child welfare system back about ten years. Our message was that the criminalization of social work will hurt those we have sworn to protect. I started as a Los Angeles County social worker 15 years ago and knew that I was entering a demanding profession. I have watched many of my co-workers leave the job due to burn-out from high caseloads, lack of support or a combination of both. No one enters the social work profession to make a great deal of money or for the glamour. It can be an 80-hour-a-week, soul-testing struggle in which you see the most horrible parts of human nature.
The last few years in L.A. County have seen social workers caseloads as high as 60 children per worker, resources for our families stretched thin and abuse and neglect at its highest levels in years.
I was one of several hundred social workers who went on strike back in 2013 to fight for increased child safety. I was asked on the picket line if money was our motivation for striking and had to explain that the social workers had already been offered a raise and that we were striking for the belief that all children deserve to be safe. This included a demand to hire additional social workers and a reduced policy manual that had over 6,000 policies, which meant that we could spend more time with the families we serve, accessing services to improve safety and providing families with resources rather than filling out checklists. We won our strike and have hired additional workers who have moved the system in a better but not perfect direction. This makes the events of the last week that much more disturbing.
It’s important to know that the anger being directed at these workers and social workers in general is misplaced and harmful. This is the time for working together as a community to fix this broken system rather than play the blame game. The children we serve are depending on us.
David Green, MSW, is the treasurer for SEIU Local 721 and a children’s social worker for the Los Angeles County Department Of Children and Family Services.