Helping children, or helping themselves?


The SEIU says Southern Nevada’s most vulnerable children are in danger because Clark County doesn’t have enough social workers. This month, Department of Family Services workers represented by the union’s Local 1107 presented the County Commission with a petition demanding reduced caseloads to ensure children are safe.

But the department’s existing caseload averages are quite adequate, below levels that could be deemed unsafe.

That’s not my opinion. That’s the position of no less an authority than … the SEIU.

Heather Richardson, a Clark County Family Services supervisor, told the commission that some social workers are handling up to 38 children in foster care and troubled homes. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Child Welfare League of America, social workers should not be assigned more than 12 cases per month for initial investigations or more than 17 ongoing cases at one time. Permanency workers, who check up on children in foster care, shouldn’t oversee more than 12 to 15 children at a time. Those numbers were cited at the commission meeting.

“Caseloads are two to three times the size recommended for best practices, and this impacts us greatly,” Richardson told commissioners.

Richardson cited some of the highest numbers of assigned children in her remarks. As reported by the Review-Journal’s Yesenia Amaro, the county says its average caseload for Child Protective Services is 18 investigations per worker. Permanency workers have an average of 13 cases and 25 total children. Social workers who provide in-home services have an average of six cases and 16 children each.

“With that kind of workload, we simply cannot ensure that every family that we encounter is safe,” said Tarsha Stewart, a child protective services investigator.

The county’s Family Services employees would have a far more compelling argument if they hadn’t been completely undercut last year by the SEIU itself.

In December, about 4,000 Los Angeles County social workers went on strike over their caseloads. The SEIU Local 721 claimed its demands for reduced caseloads were rooted in the interest of child safety, not the hiring of more dues-paying members. (The union apparently believed a complete labor stoppage would have no effect on child safety. Go figure.)

So what kind of child-per-worker cap was the SEIU 721 demanding? What number created a red line between safety and danger?

The SEIU bargained for and ultimately ended its strike for a cap of 30 children per social worker, according to reports by the Los Angeles Daily News and other city media outlets. The contract agreement called for Los Angeles County to hire 450 more social workers by this October to achieve that cap.

“Because we put it on the line, the county accepted our proposals to protect children. That’s a big victory for us and the children we serve,” Chychy Ekeochah, leader of the SEIU’s social worker bargaining team, told the Daily News.

Clark County’s Family Services workers already oversee, on average, fewer than 30 children each.

I asked Rebecca Theim, spokeswoman for SEIU 1107, to explain why a figure that Southern California’s SEIU social workers went on strike to achieve isn’t good enough for Southern Nevada.

“SEIU Nevada hasn’t ‘deemed’ anything, now or a few months ago. We don’t speak for SEIU Local 721,” Theim wrote in an email. “We trust that they understand their community and its needs and we think we understand ours.”

So Las Vegas has it worse than L.A.?

“Our members have not asked for specific caps regarding caseloads or case work. The language in our petition re caseloads states: ‘Ensure that DFS social workers’ caseloads are at responsible levels. Lowering caseloads increases the time and attention DFS’ Family Services Specialists can devote to each family and child assigned to them. This is the best way to improve child safety.’

“Figures we provided to Commissioners [Chris] Giunchigliani and [Susan] Brager … show that, for example, more than half of our Permanency case managers in DFS’ East Unit are assigned more than 30 children.”

So, would SEIU 1107 object to caps? Of course not. And workload caps are terrible policy, regardless of which profession they’re applied to, whether it’s public defenders, schoolteachers, nurses or social workers. Caps ignore the fact that no two cases are the same, and that some professionals are more skilled than others. For example, a master teacher might be able to handle 30 or more students at a time, while a less effective instructor might struggle with half that amount.

A social worker handling 15 cases, with 30 children in 15 different homes, is going to be working a lot harder than a peer who also oversees 30 children, but has those kids spread across, say, just seven homes.

Governments need flexibility in assigning workloads, not unbending union rules, to give taxpayers the best possible service for the dollar.

Keep in mind, Clark County’s SEIU workers aren’t bargaining for reduced caseloads — their contract doesn’t cover workloads — so they can only agitate the elected officials who accept contributions from their union. And Nevada public employees aren’t allowed to strike.

But no demand is made in a vacuum. The SEIU is headed to arbitration with the county because it wants big guaranteed annual pay raises over four years. Other bargaining groups have recognized the public can’t afford such terms.

Clark County has many, many exceptionally dedicated social workers, people who go above and beyond every day. But what the SEIU is really asking for is no different from what it has always wanted: more members and a lot less work for a lot more pay.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him Mondays at 4 p.m. on “Live and Local with Kevin Wall” on KXNT News Radio, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.