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Department of Children and Family Services to offer plan to lower caseloads, better protect kids
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA) - 2/4/2014
Feb. 04--Hoping to avert another tragedy like the torture and murder of a Palmdale boy in May 2013, Los Angeles County will try Tuesday to bolster their efforts to keep its children safe from abuse and neglect.
The Board of Supervisors will consider carrying out a few -- but not all -- of the preliminary recommendations of its blue-ribbon Commission on Child Protection, as well as check the progress of reforms under way at the Department of Children and Family Services.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the commission presented a "feasible and viable plan of action," but he stopped short of endorsing its proposal to create "a lead agency ... with the ability to transcend structure and propose the movement of financial and staff resources without regard to department lines" -- essentially the hiring of a child-protection czar for the county.
For now, Ridley-Thomas has embraced the call for DCFS to collaborate more closely with law enforcement agencies and health departments to protect children, especially those under age 1, who are most likely to die from abuse or neglect.
"Through the implementation of these recommendations, this board has the opportunity to immediately address child safety in Los Angeles County," Ridley-Thomas said, adding that nurses should join social workers in responding immediately to critical cases. He urged departments to create medical hubs where children can be examined for physical and psychological trauma before being placed in foster care.
The commission pressed the District Attorney's Office to ensure the Sheriff's and Probation departments and any other law enforcement arm utilize the Electronic Suspected Child Abuse Reporting System to alert other agencies that might help the victims.
Ridley-Thomas asked for an estimate of what it would cost to place deputies and probation and police officers at DCFS locations to speed up background checks of potential foster parents when children are removed from their own parents and other caregivers and in need of emergency placement.
DCFS Director Philip Browning said the recommendations "have merit" but noted that "the devil is in the details."
He pointed to the high cost of hiring and training nurses to respond to critical cases and the difficulty of creating an "overarching entity that would bring departments together" when each has a different mandate, jurisdiction and funding focus.
"Is there a jurisdiction in the U.S. where this is already being implemented?" he asked. "Let's not try to reinvent the wheel. Let's first see what someone else has done, and if there's a model, let's look at it."
The commission, chaired by former DCFS Director David Sanders, will finalize its recommendations in April. Meanwhile, DCFS is continuing to implement reforms begun a year ago.
Browning said DCFS has hired 100 social workers and plans to add 350 more, to bring the total number to about 1,450 by March of 2015. He projected this would reduce each social worker's average caseload from 32 currently to 24 -- a 25 percent drop.
David Green, a veteran social worker, believes changes are urgently needed. "There have been several studies that say the optimum caseload per social worker is 14, but we carry double, triple or quadruple that number," Green said. "There were a couple of months last year when social workers weren't able to see 1,000 to 2,000 children because there just weren't enough staff to do the visits, and that's the worst-case scenario."
Under new rules, recruits must not only have a master's degree in social work but undergo 52 weeks of training, including a combination of online courses, classroom education and simulations of real-world situations they would encounter in the field.
"In the past, we just had an eight-week classroom PowerPoint sort of thing, but we know we can't just take someone out of the schools of social work, give them a PowerPoint presentation and expect them to do a good job," Browning said.
The first batch of social workers who underwent the new training will get their first full caseloads this month. Veteran social workers, meanwhile, will need to take a refresher course.
DCFS is also streamlining its Child Protection Hotline (800-540-4000) to better log the types of calls that come in -- as not all warrant emergency action or a referral -- clarify the protocol for fielding them and respond more quickly as an agency.
Green hopes all these changes will result in more thorough attention to the county's most vulnerable. "There have been a lot of nights when I can't sleep because I'm thinking about whether these kids are going to be OK," he said. "We don't want a lapse in services."
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