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Sonoma County social workers decry tight staffing they say puts children at risk

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Sonoma County’s Child Protection Services agency is grappling with a severe staff shortage that has social workers claiming children’s lives could be in danger.

They have been going before the county supervisors in recent weeks to call out the agency’s unsafe practices and raise public awareness of the problems resulting from not having enough people to handle the workload.

“This has resulted in us leaving children in unsafe situations, including with parents who have molested them, who have driven them while under the influence of controlled substances and failing to carry out critical lifesaving health care for their children,” Angie Tate, a social worker supervisor with the county’s family youth and children’s division, told supervisors Tuesday.

Tate said social workers can no longer ensure the safety of children because there are 20 percent fewer of them than needed. She said many cases are being left incomplete so they can respond to emergency cases.

“Because of the understaffing, we’re not able to do investigations as thoroughly as we once did,” Tate said.

Another social worker, Stephanie Tower, tearfully described to county supervisors how one of her clients, a 16-year-old girl, recently died of a drug overdose.

County officials acknowledge the shortage of social workers, going so far as to call it a “crisis.” But officials said they’ve taken steps, such as staff reassignments, to ensure the most at-risk children are not being left in dangerous home situations.

“I have reassigned a number of workers — I think nine workers to priority programs — to make sure that we are doing our best to respond to all situations in a timely manner,” said Nick Honey, director of the agency’s family, youth and children’s division.

The division’s roster of social workers, ideally a little more than 100 employees, is depleted because 10 people are out on medical-related leave and there are nine open positions, Honey said.

County officials said the shortage is not unique to Sonoma County.

“The shortages that we have in child welfare are not limited to Sonoma County,” said Karen Fies, director of the county’s human services department. “It’s a Bay Area, statewide and national problem.”

Officials said the county has had difficulty recruiting and retaining social workers for a number of reasons, including the area’s housing shortage and high cost of living. Last year’s wildfires have caused additional strain on social services and the community, leading to more cases of alleged domestic abuse, county supervisor Shirlee Zane said.

“Child abuse and domestic violence reporting is up since the fires — considerably,” Zane said, adding the county’s housing crisis exacerbated by the October 2017 fires has reverberated through the local community. “There’s just been a lot of additional stress on families.”

At Tuesday’s supervisors’ meeting, Tower, a court investigations social worker who recently transferred from the division’s emergency response unit, recounted how six months ago she had five “referrals” on her desk, some of which were overdue and past the mandated time for investigation. Tower said she and her supervisor “triaged” the cases, prioritizing the most vulnerable children.

“At the top of my list was a ‘positive tox baby’ ” who was born addicted to methamphetamine and at the bottom of the list was a 16-year-old who was “prostituting herself for drugs,” Tower said.

Tower said she called the girl’s mother, who told her she was confident she could support her daughter and get her therapy and drug counseling. With that, Tower and her supervisor cleared the referral about this situation, thankful the case appeared to be resolved.

“Last week I found out that the (girl) had died of a drug overdose, drugs that likely her trafficker or her pimp were providing to her,” Tower said, overcome by tears as she recited the sad story.

“I believe that we did the best that we could in the moment with what we had,” she told county supervisors. “But it’s absolutely our department’s responsibility ... to see these children and ensure their safety, and we weren’t able to do that and that child died.”

Honey, the director of child protective services, said some relief is coming. Five new social workers are set to begin work next week and three of the 10 workers on leave are expected to return in early November, he said.

The agency’s commitment to keeping children safe remains its number one priority, he said. The procedures and assessment tools used to determine whether a child should be removed from his or her home has not changed, Honey said. Social workers make every effort to keep families intact, he said, and only in the most extreme cases will remove a child from a home.

“We’re always concerned about child safety; that’s the first priority,” he said. “That’s the reason we come to work every day.”

County staff has started discussions with the child protective services agency’s social workers to address the team’s shortage, said Christina Cramer, director of the county’s human resources department. Cramer said next week county supervisors will be considering a proposal to add a “temporary premium pay” of 5 to 10 percent extra for social workers.

The additional pay would be in place “while the county conducts a job classification study and makes a longer-term recommendation regarding their job classifications and compensation,” Cramer said.

Right now, for example, a social worker IV — the second-highest level of social worker — earns between $65,682 and $79,811 a year, Cramer said.

“We have been proactively and aggressively recruiting,” she said. “The cost-of-living changes in Sonoma County have added to this difficulty.”

Supervisor Zane said, “It’s not just about recruitment; it’s about retention. When you want to retain a new recruit, hopefully they’re able to come here and find housing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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