The Public Eye

Sacramento County struggles to keep social workers due to heavy workload

Folks waved “Save our Youth” signs to an overflow crowd at the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors public hearing on proposed budget cuts for CPS during the recession on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009.
Folks waved “Save our Youth” signs to an overflow crowd at the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors public hearing on proposed budget cuts for CPS during the recession on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009. awilliams@sacbee.com

Sacramento County has struggled to retain social workers in its Child Protective Services agency because they face massive caseloads and too little time.

From July 1, 2015, through May 31, 2016, CPS hired 106 social workers. In that same time period, 83 social workers left the department, said Dr. Sherri Heller, head of the Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services. Of those who left, the department believes 56 resigned or transferred specifically due to the working conditions, and exit interviews showed employees were overwhelmed by the workload or felt they received insufficient support.

“What most of them say is they can’t take the overtime,” Heller said. “They’re feeling too pressured by the amount of cases they have. ... It’s too much when people are scared that they’re not doing their best work to protect kids.”

In the 2015-16 fiscal year, the department budgeted $1.2 million for overtime pay but spent $3.9 million by June’s budget hearings.

Heller said workers struggle to thoroughly investigate each case because they face strict, mandated deadlines to complete each review and they have too many cases to usher through the process.

In the Emergency Response division of Sacramento County CPS, each worker gets an average of 19 new referrals per month. That’s well above the maximum of 12 new cases recommended by the Child Welfare League of America, or CWLA.

The county says workers have so many new cases in part because the department has about two dozen vacancies. The county’s CPS agency receives an average of 966 new allegations per month.

Ed Howard, senior counsel for the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego Law School, said social worker turnover and heavy caseloads result in children being harmed.

“We would never accept these sorts of caseloads for firefighters or police,” he said. Forcing them to do substandard work by imposing heavy caseloads is “disgusting,” he said.

78 percent Share of Sacramento County social workers hired over 11 months in 2015-16 who left.

The Sacramento County CPS Oversight Committee’s 2015 report found an 11 percent average vacancy rate in the past three years across the agency. It also faced a 50 percent unavailability rate, meaning that social workers were temporarily assigned elsewhere, on leave, sick or otherwise unable to investigate cases.

But even if the agency reduced those numbers, the workload would still be unreasonable, the report said. To meet CWLA’s caseload standards, the committee advised adding 43 positions in the emergency response division, which handles new cases, and 50 positions in the permanency division, which monitors children already under CPS supervision.

In response, Heller said, in the last few years the Board of Supervisors has added 91 CPS positions from a low of 657 in 2010.

Psychologically, social workers suffer when they feel they’re letting children down or are missing warning signs. Ted Somera, executive director of the union for Sacramento County’s CPS social workers, said he feels his job has become more counselor than advocate because he gets so many upset phone calls from employees.

“They’re in tears,” he said. “They just want to give up and quit.”

Cases increasingly complex

Cathy Senderling-McDonald, deputy executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California, said in an email that social workers across the state are dealing with more complicated cases and spending more time on them as the field learns more about lasting implications of abuse and neglect.

More children are entering care because their parents are struggling with drug addiction, Heller said, and more children are exposed to drugs in the womb. As society and the Legislature have shifted to treating sexually trafficked youths as victims rather than criminals, more young people are going into foster care rather than incarceration.

While that is as it should be, Heller said, it does increase the pressure on the foster care system.

We would never accept these sorts of caseloads for firefighters or police.

Ed Howard, senior counsel for the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego Law School

Other agencies drain pool

Michelle Callejas, deputy director of CPS, said there’s growing demand and a diminishing supply of social workers statewide. She said places like hospitals, schools and state agencies are hiring more caseworkers, often at higher salaries than Sacramento County can offer and with less stress.

“Being a social worker in CPS is quite challenging given the nature of the work,” Callejas said. “The folks who are with our department are incredibly dedicated to serving the community. They see this as a calling, not just a job.”

Somera said Sacramento County has become a training ground for people who then go to work in other jurisdictions, like San Joaquin County and Stanislaus County.

“Psychologically, are (social workers) willing to drive an hour to work and get paid a dollar less to have a manageable caseload? Yes. And they’re doing it,” Somera said.

CPS ramps up recruitment

CPS hires from local universities, particularly Sacramento State because it has both a bachelor’s and a master’s program, and from programs across the state and nation. Sacramento State students who complete the college’s internship program are better prepared for the work, Callejas said. She said the department has ramped up its recruiting on social media and gets a good response when the social workers themselves post about job openings.

But better recruitment doesn’t matter if employees don’t stay.

“Our social workers were coming to us saying people are leaving because they’re not getting enough training,” Somera said. “If you have a new social worker from Sac State, say, you can’t just drop them into the deep end of the pool.”

Potential solution has potential downside

In recent months, CPS has held three mass hiring events where upper management sits down for a day and interviews candidates. Those accepted immediately get fingerprinted and have their background checked. Callejas and Heller said hiring in a cohort gives workers a support system for when the going gets tough.

Next, the department assigns new workers peer trainers so they have someone to go to for advice other than a supervisor. The new employees are getting longer, more in-depth training and the department is easing them into their caseloads rather than piling it all on at once. Of the 54 hired since the mass hiring events began this year, only three have left and one of those was fired.

But this puts experienced caseworkers in a tough spot, as they bear more of the load.

“It’s clear from our retention of our newly hired people, what we’re doing is going to work,” Heller said. “But in the meantime, it’s making the pressure on the more experienced staff worse.”

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison

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