Family Services union petitions to improve child welfare

Citing large caseloads and unsafe conditions for workers and children, hundreds of Clark County Department of Family Services’ employees petitioned for agency improvements on Tuesday.

Members of the Service Employees International Union on Tuesday morning presented the petition signed by close to half of Family Services’ employees to Clark County commissioners and sought their support in making changes.

The recommended caseload for caseworkers is 12 to 15, according to one national organization, but there are some Family Services’ caseworkers who have up to 38 children, said Heather Richardson, a supervisor in Family Services’ permanency unit.

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

The petition calls for social workers’ caseloads to be kept at reasonable levels to improve child safety. It also asks Family Services to it a priority to provide help and resources to children and employees who need assistance. Lastly, the petition calls for the agency to develop and implement safety policies to protect children, families and employees.

Family Services Director Lisa Ruiz-Lee wouldn’t comment on the petition Tuesday after the meeting. Family Services spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan told the Review-Journal to submit a request for comment in writing.

Some 390 Family Services employees signed the petition, said Rebecca Theim, SEIU spokeswoman. That represents 61 percent of the 639 Family Services employees who are union-eligible.

About 51 union members attended the commission meeting wearing purple shirts with SEIU in yellow lettering.

Tarsha Stewart, a child protective services investigator for Family Services, said her job is a rewarding one, but also the most stressful one she’s ever had.

“As much as I love my job, it is filled with stress, anxiety, fatigue, largely because we are subjected to workloads and time lines that are … impossible,” she said.

Denise Tanata Ashby, executive director for Children’s Advocacy Alliance in Las Vegas, said the caseload sizes are “extremely concerning.”

When something tragic happens to a child, it often has to do with large caseloads, she said. Large caseloads make it almost impossible for caseworkers to do everything they are required to do to keep children safe and protected.

But “it’s definitely not the only issue that needs to be addressed,” she said.

Basic safety polices and procedures are needed as well as additional training and resources for employees, Ashby said. But she understands that Family Services is already working to make improvements.

The recommended caseload standards in child protective services, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Child Welfare League of America, is 12 cases per month per social worker for the initial investigation and 17 active cases per social worker for ongoing cases. For foster care, the organization recommends 12 to 15 children per social worker.

Stewart said she routinely receives up to three cases in one day.

“With that kind of workload, we simply cannot ensure that every family that we encounter is safe,” she said.

Caseworkers often see a child just once because of the enormous caseloads, Stewart said.

“If something tragic does happen, God forbid, the community is quick to blame the Department of Family Services, and guess what? Me too, as an investigator,” she said. “My job is one the line every day.”

More caseworkers and investigators are needed to reduce individual caseloads and allow employees to devote more time and attention to the families assigned to them, she said.

An anonymous employee in a letter read aloud during the meeting said: “The concern that I have is that the level of expectations has not been designed with consideration of caseload sizes.”

Nevada doesn’t have a policy or regulation establishing a caseload ratio for child welfare, said Mary Woods, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The average caseloads for Family Services’ Child Protective Services is 18 investigations per worker, according to written responses from Jourdan. The average caseload for permanency workers, who oversee children in foster care, is 13. That’s an average of 25 children per worker.

The average caseload for in-home services is six cases per worker, an average of 16 children.

But the union’s concerns go beyond caseloads.

Richardson in May was injured on the job after transporting a child to Child Haven, the county’s emergency shelter for abused and neglected children. After arriving at the shelter, the child picked up a block and struck her in the head.

She was taken by ambulance to a local emergency department.

“I sustained a traumatic brain injury as a result,” she said. “I feel there are things that we can do better. I believe there was a breakdown in the collaboration with community partners.”

Prior to the child being released from a psychiatric facility and taken to Child Haven, Richardson had expressed concerns that the child was not stable and posed a safety threat to those around him.

She sent her concerns in writing to Family Services administration and the psychiatric facility, but to date, those problems haven’t been addressed. The safety training program for Family Services employees calls for a debriefing with those involved when such incidents occur, but that never took place.

“I walked in the next day having a very visible injury, I had to answer questions and dispel rumors about what had actually occurred,” she said. “Exposure to unsafe conditions occurs on a daily basis.”

Commissioners Chris Giunchigliani and Steve Sisolak said after the meeting that they take the concerns raised seriously.

“I think they raised some valid questions,” Giunchigliani said.

Commissioners called for a working group to be formed to discuss addressing the issues raised.

The demand for child welfare services has increased in recent months and Family Services welcomes the opportunity to begin a discussion on the issues, Jourdan wrote in a statement Tuesday.

“The Clark County Department of Family Services is faced daily with complex work that has dedicated employees inserting themselves into the lives of families in crisis — all in the name of child safety,” Jourdan said. “And while the safety of children is the department’s primary focus, the safety of those who serve our community’s most vulnerable is also paramount.”

Clark County Manager Don Burnette said he was surprised by the turnout of union members at the meeting, adding that county management was already working with them on the issues.

“I thought it was a good conversation,” he said of two meetings between county and union officials. “They were going to provide me with specific issues that needed to be addressed” at a future meeting. “They wanted to take the conversation to the board before presenting to me with specific issues.”

He also said that none of the Family Services employees who spoke Tuesday had brought their concerns to the attention of Ruiz-Lee.

“They have not reached out to her,” he said.

However, union officials said that the director was aware that Richardson had been injured and had concerns about employee safety.

However, he said officials certainly understand that caseloads are going up. They have gone up within the last year, but even more within the last three to four months, which is why the agency has had positions added, Burnette said.

On July 2013, 49 additional positions for Family Services went into effect, followed by another 47 positions that went into effect last month, he said. Not all of those positions have been filled.

“Relief is on the way,” he said. “Whether it will be enough, I can’t tell you. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Review Journal reporter Ben Botkin contributed to this report.

Contact Yesenia Amaro at yamaro@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440. Find her on Twitter: @YeseniaAmaro.

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