Child welfare workers staged a protest outside the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors a day before the social workers' union returns to contract talks with the county.
For months, social workers with the Department of Children and Family Services have said their caseloads are too high. Tuesday, a few dozen social workers and SEIU Local 721 representatives clustered on the steps of the county building and demanded that a new contract include a promise to hire 35 new social workers each month.
"There's 40 to 50 kids per social worker," said DCFS worker Almira Garza. "We're making decisions on these families, and we don't want to be rushed just to push them through like we're herding cattle."
Garza wants to see those caseloads reduced to 30 children per social worker. (The union filed a lawsuit against the county last month, seeking to force the county to meet that caseload cap.)
While most other county departments have reached agreements with the county, DCFS workers are amongst the last holdouts — and the threat of a strike remains on the table.
The negotiations also coincide with heavy scrutiny on the department. Recent high profile deaths of children who'd had contact with DCFS workers prompted the Board of Supervisors to establish a Blue Ribbon Commission to recommend changes in the department. The group's report is expected by the end of the year.
Supervisor Mark Riddley-Thomas, who pushed for the commission, said the county and social workers are "in the thick of it" with contract negotiations.
"If we want the work to be done properly, it's clear to me that we have to have good working conditions, we have to have well trained staff, and we need to be attentive to fair and just compensation," Riddley-Thomas said.
The board has heard complaints about high caseloads before. According to David Sommers, a spokesman for the county CEO's office, the board has authorized and funded positions when DCFS asks for them. According to DCFS, about 100 new social workers are in the academy, with recent funding for an additional 217 positions.
Asked if additional social workers are needed to keep children in Los Angeles safe, DCFS Director Philip Browning said in an email: "Social workers will always do their best to keep all children safe."
DCFS has jurisdiction over 35,000 children in the county and investigates about 150,000 cases each year. Browning declined to comment directly on negotiations or the social workers' demands.
"Lower caseloads provide the opportunity to spend more time with children and families, facilitate meeting our legal requirements, and ease the burden of the job," Browning said.
County negotiators return to the bargaining table Wednesday to hash out the social workers' contract. Sommers said the question of caseloads is part of a "small list of lingering questions" that need to be resolved, but the contract is "very close to resolution."