- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

WASHINGTON, Dec. 4 (UPI) — This is the second part of a three-part series examining the abuse of children in the United States and is being repeated as a tie-in with the story of child abuse in Newark, N.J.

United Press International found that despite the periodic eruption into public consciousness of high-profile cases of children being abused, the issue has failed to resonate with the general public or government officials in any consistent way.

Child protection caseworkers are often the front line of defense for at-risk children, but those working in the system say they face work that is tough and public scrutiny that is tougher. They say the answer lies in more funding for staff and education, something many jurisdictions, such as Los Angeles County, are either unwilling or unable to provide.

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Many child protection caseworkers are in violation of the law even before they walk into their offices in the morning, says Anita Bock, former head of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

"Social workers violate policy and procedures everyday," she says. "It's the quiet shame. It's the dirty little secret."

Rarely are they able to complete the paperwork or make the visits mandated under state law, she says, but it's a funding and staffing issue, not negligence.

Bock should know. She has headed two major children's services agencies, in Miami and in Los Angeles. The work is tough. The scrutiny, she says, is tougher.

Child-protection workers have come under fire over the past six months as high-profile cases in Miami revealed some had falsified court reports, and in one case the agency lost track of a child's whereabouts.

Laws, many of which vary from state to state, mandate that at-risk children be seen by a worker within a specified period, sometimes as soon as within 24 hours of a complaint. Follow-up visits are also often mandated either by state law or by the policies of individual agencies.

No matter who is making the rules, the cases pile up.

"This job is risk-driven and liability driven. If you don't send a child home, then the parents call the media who ask why," Bock says. "If you send a child home and they die, then you're asked why.

"When something goes wrong, they always fire a social worker or a supervisor."

This time it was Bock who lost her job. It was in July when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ordered her dismissal, saying she had not implemented reforms to the system quickly enough. She had been in the job about two years.

Bock spent three years in Miami leading the child-protection agency there before coming to California.

Bock, who left the Florida Department of Children and Family Services after Gov. Jeb Bush was elected, maintains that the backlog of 8,000 cases in Miami when she left has grown to some 50,000 cases under the new administration.

Florida released its report on its backlogged cases last summer. As of July 2002, it had 54,330 open cases, with 33,779 of them open longer than 60 days.

Owen Roach, spokesman for the Florida Department of Children and Family Services, says some of the districts formed special backlog units to address the issue.

"The representatives of the department, at the direction of the Secretary Jerry Regier, is taking a good, hard look at the backlog issue and (is) studying several proposals and initiatives that will fully address the scope of the backlog issue with the ultimate goal of eliminating as much of the backlog cases as possible, in as short a time as possible," Roach says.

The agency captured America's attention as it came under fire last spring for having lost track of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson — a child supposedly under its care — more than a year ago.

Child-protection workers — or caseworkers as they are often called — are the frontline defense for children being abused in their homes. An increasing number are leaving the job for positions that are less stressful and where there isn't so much at stake.

In 2000, 9.3 percent of positions for state child-protective service workers nationwide were vacant. The rate among private agencies was about 11 percent. The turnover rate among caseworkers around the nation ranges from 20 percent among state agencies to 40 percent in private agencies.

Shay Bilchik, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America, says though the nature of the job contributes to the high vacancy rates, it is possible to keep caseworkers on the job.

"There is so much value in what they do. I mean, why (do) people leave their jobs? They leave their jobs because working conditions are miserable, they don't feel they get the right kind of supervision and support," Bilchik says. "Salary usually goes down four or five notches (when they change jobs)."

For example in Los Angeles County where they have 2,200 caseworkers, the turnover rate is anywhere from 12 percent to 15 percent, but can skyrocket to as high as 30 percent in some areas, Bock said.

Bock says the problem is not just poor management. She attributes the high national turnover rate to a shortage of caseworkers, a chaotic and volatile work environment and the fact they are typically judged by their failures rather their successes. A trend has emerged that finds 50 percent of caseworkers abandoning their jobs in less than five years when once they stayed with an agency an average of 10 to 15 years.

"It's a trend that has to be watched," Bock says.

She says the nature of the cases had changed, too.

"Increasingly, cases are more complicated. Families are heavily impacted by substance abuse, mental health issues and teen pregnancy," she said. "Poverty is a big factor in cities like Los Angeles."

Bock says caseworkers are increasingly being asked to deal with increased court demands, spend more time learning automated systems that are in need of redesign and to master an increasing number of regulations that are almost impossible to follow completely.

A bill introduced in the California state legislature, called the 20-30 bill, would have incrementally reduced caseloads over the next five years, Bock says. But when the U.S. economy tanked, the measure fell by the wayside.

"It never materialized," she says.

The burden of answering the question of why the system does not work should fall not on the caseworkers, but on administrators and politicians responsible for policy and funding, she says.

Consider Janet.

Janet is on her cell phone receiving information about a house she will have to visit later in the day. But right now she is parking her car in front of a home in Los Angeles County. She isn't sure what she will find inside, but she is almost certain that whatever it is, it won't be good.

It is one of more than 80 cases that she has sitting on her desk and she has no idea how she will plow through them all. It's an improvement. A little over a month ago, her in-box was crammed with the files of more than 100 at-risk families begging for her attention.

Janet is one of more than 2,000 child-protection workers in her county's Department of Children and Family Services. Janet is not her real name. Like many caseworkers across the country, she is afraid that if her identity is revealed, she may lose her job.

United Press International asked her to describe her job — and that of many others doing what she does everyday — and what toll it takes on her emotionally and physically.

"It's almost impossible," she says.

Workers like Janet generally hold either a psychology or social science degree and receive on-the-job training in assessment and investigation of abuse and neglect cases. Training and experience can vary depending on the geographical location and size of the state or county.

In the case of Janet's agency, she is required to have a bachelor's or master's degree in social work and to have received 12 weeks of training in the department's policies and procedures.

Janet's day begins often about 9 a.m. and runs nonstop until well after 8 p.m. — sometimes she doesn't get home until midnight. Her task is to assess complaints of abuse and neglect levied against parents and caretakers. When she enters a home under investigation, she is looking for what the county calls the "minimum standard of living." As long as the home does not have unsanitary conditions and the parents are meeting the child's basic needs, she leaves them where they are.

She says the downside of the job is that her agency is woefully understaffed. The No. 1 reason child protection workers leave the job, Janet said, is stress. There is never enough time to do the paperwork that comes with each new case.

"They blame everything on the social workers," she says.

Then with a sigh, Janet says, "Sometimes I don't know what to do first."

Janet is an example of a government employee who feels caught between politicians unwilling to commit sufficient resources to the service and a general public quick to blame them should a child fall though the cracks and end up injured or worse — dead.

Admittedly, Janet says she often does not have the time to place follow-up calls to doctors or schools. She says her priority is to make sure the children in her charge are alive and well.

What child protection workers do and how they make their decisions regarding the fate of a child is often not clear to the general public. State agencies are reluctant to speak publicly about how decisions are made on whether or not to remove a child from a home.

Janet said that choice to detain a child rests solely with her, but she then notifies her supervisor about what should be done next.

That scenario plays out differently in different states. Some agencies require caseworkers to contact an on-staff attorney to help decide whether a child can be removed from his or her parent's care and placed outside the home.

Little help exists for caseworkers like Janet. The federal government has adopted a "hands-off" approach to overseeing child protection within the United States.

Officials from the Administration for Children and Families, the federal agency that oversees child protection in the United States, say: they don't want to micro-manage the system with additional mandates and regulation; and they don't believe a system such as an integrated computer database, aimed at better tracking a child's progress through the child welfare system and the courts, would be useful.

Not surprisingly, child advocates strongly disagree.

Bilchik, of the Child Welfare League of America, says not enough has been invested in the system to ensure it has good, trained investigators, well-supervised caseworkers and low caseloads.

Child advocates and groups representing caseworkers such as the Service Employees International Union say state agencies that govern child-protective services are buckling under the weight of an overwhelming number of abuse and neglect cases and children. Those agencies are caught in a web of overburdened, under-supervised caseworkers, under-funded local agencies and poor management that remain, for the most part, below the radar of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the nation's top health agency charged with protecting America's most vulnerable population.

In Los Angeles County, 146,495 emergency calls were placed to the city's hotline reporting child abuse and neglect last year. Some 52,650 children received services from DCFS, the agency says.

"The situation here is dire by any method of comparison and rapidly becoming biblical in both scale and scope," SEIU spokesman Tom O'Connor says. "… We are just an earthquake away (from a total system collapse)."


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