Social workers win a victory

March 17, 2014

Don Lash reports on the gains that Los Angeles Country social workers made after a December strike--and the high stakes for the families and children they work with.

AFTER TWO weeks of voting in early February, social workers employed in the Los Angeles County child welfare system ratified a contact with the county that achieved the demands that led the workers to strike for six days in December 2013.

The key demand in the strike was the hiring of nearly 600 new social workers--a 15 percent increase--to reduce caseloads to levels consistent with child safety. Before and during the strike, the county had said it was ready to hire new staff, but refused to commit to a fixed number or time frame, proposing instead a "joint management-labor committee" to study the issue. The new contract has both a hard target and a deadline.

The social workers, represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 721, were like other members of the county workforce in having gone without a raise for five years. Local 721 and the county had already come to a tentative agreement on a 6 percent raise over the life of the contract (2 percent per year for three years) for all of the 55,000 county employees represented by the local.

Los Angeles County social workers walk the picket line
Los Angeles County social workers walk the picket line (SEIU Local 721)

This would provide some relief, but was inadequate to make up for the decline in real wages during the previous half decade, when increases in the cost of living were not offset by any increase in earnings. While the 3,500 social workers were prepared to accept the wage package, they could not agree to the settlement without caseload reductions.

Strikers set up daily pickets outside the headquarters of the county's Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). On the second day, Philip Browning, the head of DCFS, made a surprise appearance to plead with the workers to return to work, promising to hire new staff to reduce caseloads. When asked for a specific commitment, Browning said it was a budget issue and went back inside.

Carrying signs saying "Child Safety Now!" about 2,000 strikers and supporters rallied outside a county Board of Supervisors meeting on December 9, the last day of the strike. Seven strikers were arrested for sitting down in the street. The strike was settled with the county's agreement to hire the new workers that evening.

The caseload reductions were a stunning victory, and highlight the importance of public-sector workers organizing to reform the systems in which they work.

Some strikers adhered to demands that went beyond the caseload reduction formula adopted by the union. Citing a study recommending caseloads capped at 14, these strikers supported a demand for 1,400 new workers. The county responded that the study pre-dated technological innovations such as iPhones, which it said enabled workers to handle higher caseloads.

Workers demanding these lower caseloads also formulated a series of social justice demands, including closing a tax loophole allowing corporations to evade property tax, and a living wage for employees of private contractors doing business with the county. While these positions never became demands of the union, there is clearly rank-and-file support for social justice unionism, and the success of the strike may give these elements greater momentum.

ALTHOUGH THE strike is important, the background is equally relevant for what it says about the dynamics of race, class and politics in the child welfare system. In 2012, Los Angeles County had 18,523 children and youth in foster care.

About 55 percent were Latino, 31 percent were Black, 11 percent were white, and 2 percent were Asian. Using public school enrollment for comparison, Black students represent less than 9 percent of the county's public school census, meaning Blacks are grossly over-represented in foster care, while whites, Asians and Latinos are under-represented to varying degrees.

The county's "rate of removal," the rate at which children are removed from their families and placed in foster care, is among the highest among major metropolitan areas, with 19.5 removals per 1,000 impoverished children, and 4.3 per 1,000 for all children, compared to 4.6 and 1.1, respectively, for Cook County (Chicago).

Consistent with a national trend, the foster care population in LA County declined consistently from a peak of over 50,000 in 1998. Alone among the largest child welfare systems, Los Angeles saw a reversal of the trend, as the number of children in care dipped to 15,000 and then began to grow again.

Critics point to a number of factors, but the most dramatic increases in children being removed from their families followed a series of sensational stories about fatalities from child abuse by the Los Angeles Times in 2009, using new legislation opening investigative files from these cases to the media. As the series continued, removals accelerated in what some critics referred to as a "foster care panic."

The stories of children who die as a result of abuse are heartrendingly tragic, but the Times treatment of the stories ignored the factors of childhood poverty and societal neglect that contribute to the conditions under which these children lived and died. Instead, the Times used the deaths of these children to scapegoat parents living in poverty, front-line child welfare workers, unnamed "bureaucrats," and system change advocates.

The problems with the Times' articles were detailed by a number of critics, whom the Times dismissed as "writers who have taken a long-standing position in favor of keeping children out of foster care--even if that means leaving them with abusive parents." Nevertheless, critics catalogued the ways the Times misled readers and manipulated data, including inaccurately claiming there was an increase in the rate of deaths as a result of abuse.

While the Times advocated a return to more aggressive removal practices in the name of child safety, it ignored evidence that higher rates of removal do not enhance child safety and may do the opposite, by creating pressure to increase the number of foster beds and burdening oversight mechanisms within the system. Remarkably, the same reporter who had written the 2009 series that resulted in the spike in removals wrote a story in 2013 arguing that the system was putting children at risk when they enter foster care.

ONE SUPPORTER of the 2013 strike, who advocates for parents within the foster care system, stated that the Times "really helped to create the conditions that made this strike happen." She said they created the crisis by "throwing the elected officials into a panic."

She said the consequences for parents were increased risk of removal and delays in getting their children back because the system was overloaded. The consequences for children were increased risk of separation, longer stays in care and a decline in quality because of the pressure to expand the number of homes. For workers, the consequence was higher caseloads, unrelenting pressure to remove from administrators fearful of scandal, and inability to properly attend to cases. She added that, even though the strike meant her cases were further delayed, she supported the strikers, and thought most of the parents she worked with did as well.

The social workers' victory in the 2013 strike will bring lasting benefits for the children and families of Los Angeles if it emboldens a militant work force in the child welfare system continually organizing around social justice demands. Workers and families together can organize to counter the scandal-mongering and scapegoating press, and demanding change that addresses the real causes of childhood poverty and distress.

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