The Santa Clara County Child Abuse Council has launched a probe into the Department of Family and Children Services following a series of reports by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit. The advisory committee wants to find out what’s causing high turnover rates and complaints among social workers that they are not able to provide vital services to vulnerable children.
Last August, a group of six social workers spoke to NBC Bay Area, alleging a “toxic” work environment at the agency was driving out social workers, leading to dozens of unfilled vacancies and unmanageable caseloads. According to a spokesperson for the Santa Clara County Social Services Agency, the department has lost 110 social workers over the past two years.
The agency says it’s actively working to replace those workers, but progress has been slow. In fact, the agency currently has 42 unfilled vacancies, 50 percent more than last June when there were only 28 vacancies.
“That just leads to bad outcomes for the children and parents that are getting services from DFCS,” said Andrew Cain, Chairperson of the Santa Clara County Child Abuse Council. He’s also the Supervising Attorney with Legal Advocates for Children and Youth. “We really wanted to see what are some of the issues that are contributing to that.”
NBC Bay Area first revealed concerns about decision making at DFCS in October 2015, when a young girl was nearly killed after reports and signs of her abuse were missed by multiple social workers.
Last March, foster parent Shellie Nichol spoke out after social workers removed 2-year-old Kelly Nguyen from her care, placing the girl with her father in a men’s halfway house. The medically fragile toddler died there two months later on February 28th. Nearly a year after her death, the coroner’s office says the results of the autopsy are still pending. Nichol told NBC Bay Area she repeatedly questioned the decision to move Nguyen, and warned social workers it wasn’t in the best interest of the special needs child.
“We were gravely concerned,” Nichol said.
Hiring and retaining social workers is a constant struggle for many California counties, but Cain said the issues he’s witnessed in Santa Clara firsthand and in NBC Bay Area’s reporting warranted further investigation. Cain said the working group created by the Child Abuse Council has just started gathering information, and the investigation will result in a list of recommendations to the Board of Supervisors about how to address the key problems at DFCS.
When social workers are spread so thin, foster parents are often among the first to see how vulnerable children can slip through the cracks.
“[Social workers] are too overworked, too overwhelmed and don’t have enough education or training,” Jane Ramirez said. The veteran foster parent has cared for more than 50 children and teens in Santa Clara County over the past 30 years. “These are children’s lives in the balance. Those are my kids’ lives. Those were kids I invested myself in that I loved, that I considered my kids. And for things to happen to them is just so sad.”
Ramirez is licensed in Santa Clara County but she’s currently fostering 4-year-old Damien, a medically fragile toddler from Monterrey County. She said she’s thankful the Child Abuse Council is taking on the investigation, and hopes the staffing challenges plaguing the agency can be addressed.
“One of the things the Child Abuse Council is doing right now is trying to gather more information through looking at very concrete things like exit surveys, staff complaints that were filed with management, and trying to parse through that information,” Cain said.
The Department of Family and Children’s Services conducted an internal investigation last year when a group of frustrated social workers brought their grievances to management, but the report was never made public. Those social workers told NBC Bay Area they had hoped to keep their complaints in-house, and only decided to go public when they felt ignored.
NBC Bay Area requested an interview with Francesca LeRue, the new director for the Santa Clara County Department of Family and Children’s Services, to discuss her vision for the agency and how she plans to address staffing issues there, but the request was declined.
In a written statement, LeRue said:
“Our goal for 2017-2018 will be to align all existing efforts and resources to build a strong infrastructure to meet federal and state performance outcome measures, focusing on doing what is required and doing it well. In this way, we will hold ourselves accountable, while we also respect and support one another, and celebrate our successes.”
While hiring and turnover continue to be an issue, the agency has managed to dramatically improve the rate of calls answered at at the Child Abuse and Neglect (CAN) Center, which manages the county’s 24 hour child abuse hotline. A 2013 audit found the CAN Center failed to answer about 40 percent of calls on the hotline. This month, a county spokesperson said 99 percent of those calls are now being answered. The department acknowledged some of those calls go to voicemail or are answered by clerical staff, rather than a licensed social worker trained to assess the safety of a child.
Cain says he hopes the Child Abuse Council will wrap up its investigation within the next three months. He said they’ll take their findings to the Board of Supervisors and present possible solutions to any issues they uncover. For now, Cain said his priorities are to shrink caseloads for social workers and make sure they feel supported.
“Social work is arguably the toughest job that we have out there,” Cain said. “In order for them to do their job in the way to best serve these children, they need to feel supported.”
Ramirez says she’s glad the agency has a new leader at the helm, and hopes that will translate to improvements for children in the foster system and the resource families that take care of them. Despite the challenges and frustrations she’s experienced at times over the last three decades, Ramirez said she would happily do it all over again.
“I would not give up children or fosters for anything in the world,” Ramirez said. “It has enriched our lives so much. That’s why you do it – for the kids. If the system wasn’t so crazy there would be so many more people out there doing what I’m doing and love it.”
You can see the rest of our reporting on the Department of Family and Children's Services here: