Social-worker shortage strains department

LOS ANGELES Some people in the department say it is overwhelmed, understaffed, and many job openings are going unfilled. Especially acute is the need for bilingual social workers.

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Social worker David Green says L.A. County's Dept. of Children and Family Services has a big problem on its hands: They don't have enough workers for the abused and neglected children in the county.

"We're struggling to provide resources for the families that we work with," said Green. "We've been trying to keep kids safe, but unfortunately our caseloads are increasing by the day, and it's getting more and more difficult to provide quality services to the families and kids we work with."

One example is the case of a 5-year-old South L.A. boy found burned, starved and beaten earlier in June. The boy's mother, 24-year-old Starkeisha Brown and her live-in girlfriend, 19-year-old Krystal Mathews, have both been arrested and charged with the abuse. A third woman, the boy's babysitter, was also arrested and charged.

Social workers say they knew about the abuse back in 2005, but a staff shortage let the case fall through the cracks.

"Part of what happened with that situation is the community didn't feel comfortable stepping forward and reporting some of the things that they were seeing on a day-to-day basis," said Green. "And that really was hurtful and really caused problems for the child."

DCFS Deputy Director Ted Myers doesn't believe the case of the 5-year-old could have been prevented with more staff. But he does agree that his department does need to hire more qualified social workers.

"We are running about three to five percent vacancy, which is pretty good for child welfare in the nation," said Myers. "On the other hand, we have at least 150 vacancies that we intend to fill this summer, so that should help."

David Green says he and his union, SEIU Local 721, believe the department needs a thousand more social workers. He says ideally each worker should have 15 cases at a time. Currently each staff member is juggling anywhere from between 30 and 50 cases at a time. Green says the apartment also needs more bilingual social workers.

Officials say a solution is easier said than done.

Along with qualified staff, what this department really needs is money. They say Governor Schwarzenegger's new budget is looking to cut their funding by more than 11 percent. Officials are currently fighting in Sacramento to save hundreds of jobs.


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