Friday nights bring the toughest cases for DCFS social workers

01 - DCFS Night Shift

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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.

04 - DCFS Night Shift

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The residence in south L.A. is home to two young mothers with four toddlers. One of the mothers, Susana, recently fled an abusive relationship.

10 - DCFS Night Shift

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McCloud speaks with Susana in private in her bedroom, as he tries to ascertain her current state and the health of her child.

12 - DCFS Night Shift

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McCloud speaks with his supervisor. He usually consults with the DCFS office before leaving a scene.

13 - DCFS Night Shift

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McCloud fills out paperwork at the end of the home visit. He has decided that the child is safe and can stay with Susana.

02 - DCFS Night Shift

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Social worker Gesenia Macias leaves an apartment with two police officers after unsuccessfully trying to find the parents in a reported neglect case.

03 - DCFS Night Shift

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McCloud tries to figure out if there's anyone home at an apartment in the south Bay during a call for a report of abuse. The mother wasn't home and McCloud traveled on to the father's house.

15 - DCFS Night Shift

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McCloud looks into the windows of a second-floor apartment in the south Bay to see if there are any lights on. Depending on the circumstances, case workers visit one to three homes a night.

14 - DCFS Night Shift

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Social worker Gesenia Macias is accompanied by a police officer as she checks to see if a family is home shortly before midnight.

05 - DCFS Night Shift

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McCloud walks by baskets with forms used in processing DCFS investigations. Every night, about two dozen emergency response workers are on hand to handle reports of abuse and neglect.

Department of Children and Family Services

Courtesy L.A. County DCFS

The living room area at the Children's Welcome Center operated by L.A. County's Department of Children and Family Services.

06 - DCFS Night Shift

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A conference room serves as a holding area for children taken into protective custody by DCFS. This room can fill up at night.

07 - DCFS Night Shift

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McCloud reads up on a case before heading out into the field at the DCFS headquarters south of downtown Los Angeles. The offices are a warren of cubicles that takes up six floors above the L.A. Mart shopping center.

08 - DCFS Night Shift

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Temporary cots fill a conference room at the DCFS headquarters south of downtown Los Angeles. Children taken into protective custody sometimes spend the night in the agency's fifth floor offices.

09 - DCFS Night Shift

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Social worker Ladore Winzer staffs the hotline through the night at the DCFS headquarters south of downtown Los Angeles. Friday night is one of the busiest for the department.

11 - DCFS Night Shift

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An unused piece of luggage is left behind in a room used for children who have been taken into protective custody.


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. 

 

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