Friday nights bring the toughest cases for DCFS social workers

Social worker Alfred McCloud knocks on the front door of a home in south L.A. to check on a toddler. McCloud works the night shift with the Department of Child and Family Services' Emergency Response Team.
Social worker Alfred McCloud knocks on the front door of a home in south L.A. to check on a toddler. McCloud works the night shift with the Department of Child and Family Services' Emergency Response Team.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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Alfred McCloud spends most of his Friday nights knocking on doors.  On the other side, he’s never sure what he’s going to find. Sometimes it’s a strung out junkie with six kids.  Or maybe a father in a drunken stupor.  And then there are the babies with broken bones.

Welcome to the night shift at Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

On any given night, about two dozen emergency response social workers work late into the evening, responding to child abuse calls from all over Los Angeles County. McCloud is one of them.  He’s a five-year veteran of the department and a recent transfer to the emergency response team.

McCloud is assigned to weekend duty, the busiest time of the week, according to his supervisor, Javier Avila. "A typical Friday night could be anywhere from 40 to 55 child abuse investigations for my staff," says Avila.

Friday nights also seem to bring the worst cases.  "It can include child accidents, child fatalities, near drownings, or near fatalities," Avila says. "So we pretty much get the very severe types of cases on Friday and Saturday nights."

There has been a steady increase in the amount of calls to the child abuse hotline, requiring McCloud to knock on a lot more doors.  DCFS numbers show there were 20,985 calls to the hotline in October, compared with 19,790 in October 2012. The peak month this year was May, when the department received 22,997 calls, nearly 4,000 more than in May 2012.

May was also the month when eight year old Gabriel Fernandez died in Palmdale.  DCFS' handling of his case prompted the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to form a blue ribbon commission to explore ways of improving the agency’s performance.  Four DCFS employees involved in the boy’s death were fired.  Department officials have suggested the episode contributed to the increase in calls to the child abuse hotline.

More calls means more children entering the system, and that creates another problem: where to put them.  On a recent Friday night, McCloud took into protective custody a girl who claimed her father sexually abused her. It was a little after midnight. The challenge was to find her a spot.  Calls by other social workers secured a foster home for the girl, but some kids aren’t so lucky.

"There is a decrease in the number of caregivers willing to take some children now," says McCloud.

Sometimes children end up in the DCFS office, says McCloud. Sometimes he finds himself caring for a child in his cubicle while trying to find a caregiver, "so it’s a lot of multi-tasking," he says.

And if a child isn't in McCloud’s cubicle, he may be put in a nearby conference room.  A recent Friday found six kids in the room and more were showing up.

"Fridays we have a lot of intakes." says social worker Ray Delgado.  One of the kids who arrives this night is a young girl, who looks no more than thirteen.  "She’s brand new in the system," says Delgado. "She doesn’t know what’s going on.  She’s frightened to death." 

By the end of the night, the conference room is wall-to-wall cots filled with sleeping kids.

By law, children over ten years old can stay in the conference room for up to 24 hours. Longer visits, called "overstays" occasionally happen.  The California Department of Social Services recently fined DCFS $600 for overstays in September at a different facility. 

While dealing with the shortage of caregivers and the increased numbers of children entering the system, L.A. County also faces a lawsuit by DCFS social workers seeking smaller caseloads. The social workers' union filed the suit last week. 

The blue ribbon commission is expected to present its recommendations for improving DCFS to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors next month.