SEIU members Lisa Reyna, Melissa Castro and Heather Evans listen to a speaker at an Oct. 14 press conference outside the Fresno County Child Protective Services office. Photo by Peter Maiden

Literally Living in the System

By I smiley G. Calderón

By now, all of Fresno County and the entire nation have heard about the unbelievable and unthinkable temporary housing conditions that Fresno County’s Department of Social Services Child Protection division has subjected some of its youth to.

Inhumane. Egregious. Unacceptable.

Those are just a few of the words that flood the mind after seeing the numerous disturbingly shocking images of young Fresnans sprawled out across office floors and tables with blankets used as makeshift beds. Kids traumatically torn from their families and homes are now forced to endure even more trauma and emotional scarring at the hands of the county.

It’s really unbelievable: Fresno County, a county infamously known for its widespread homelessness epidemic, now caught institutionalizing and forcing perpetual homelessness on its troubled youth!

It’s just sickening to think of this county’s cavalier and flagrant social betrayal and neglect of Fresno’s most vulnerable youth. It’s definitely a horrible and shamefully embarrassing public stain on California’s 10th most populous county known for conservative values.

Lorraine Ramirez, a social worker with the Fresno County Department of Social Services, speaks to the press and fellow SEIU members on Oct. 14. Photo by Peter Maiden

How did Fresno ever stoop so low?

Of course, everyone’s playing the blame game now trying to find a scapegoat that could make sense of all of this craziness. Perhaps these were isolated incidents? Maybe they were the result of social workers going bad?

Or, maybe what emerged to light was really a more pervasive symptom of a greater underlying problem in Fresno, namely, the de-investment of social workers.

It’s a serious problem. Imagine being a social worker where you aren’t valued by management but are constantly overworked with never-ending caseload upon caseload of youth needing your undivided attention. It’s absolutely overwhelming.

In Fresno County, social workers regularly juggle more than 30 cases at any given time—cases that are intense and emotional, ones that demand both excellence and empathy in dealing with the public. In comparison, across the state, the recommended social worker caseload is about 12–15.

Clearly, Fresno social workers are overworked and undervalued. The pay and benefits are among the worst in the state. The retention rate is low. There are constant vacancies that only intensify the workload for the remaining social workers. Under such conditions, it’s not surprising that the turnover rate in the past four years has been 107%. Fresno County social workers deserve better.

Of course, there’s no excuse for this Child Protection Services housing fiasco, but understanding the root of the situation is important to properly address it.

“I want to make it clear,” Fresno County social worker Yolanda Reyes said at last month’s press conference about the matter, “This is not the social workers’ making decisions to have kids sleep in offices, on tables, without appropriate meals or the ability to take showers daily; it’s the county responsibility.

“It’s not a question of if something horrible is going to happen; it’s a matter of asking management when does this end?”

The truth is, it takes a special kind of person to be a social worker. Someone who is in tune with empathy and compassion—even love—for a community in need. And we need more of these kinds of people on the job.

But, even the most qualified and compassionate, pure-hearted person with the best intentions can’t do more than what is humanly possible—right? There are not enough hours in the day to do everything.

At the end of the day, social work is just that—a job. And the bottom line is that social workers, especially Fresno ones, desperately need better working conditions so that they can dutifully meet the needs of their clients.

If social workers are disenfranchised, it’s only a matter of time before the children who they are trying to serve also suffer. And their suffering is now apparent to all.

Fresno social worker Hector Cerda made it clear at the press conference: “As a matter of fact…reasonable caseloads at a job where I’m happy, and I’m invested in, and I’m listened to, and earning a decent salary for the hard work I produce…that would make me a better social worker.

“When I’m a better social worker, or if I’m on a team of strong social workers, we find safe and suitable placements for children faster.

“When we are able to devote years and maybe even decades to our department, the community benefits from experienced county workers who know the workarounds, the community partners and the proven approaches to place children in safe homes as quickly as possible.”

Another fed-up Fresno social worker, Lorraine Ramirez, spoke to the heart of the issue: “I have to tell you, other counties are handling the children in their custody much more humanely and this tells me that Fresno County management thinks that children sleeping and living in offices is the answer and it’s not!”

Yet, this disturbing housing situation is nothing new, however. It’s been going on for years in the system, really. Simply put, it’s because of the longstanding political culture in Fresno County that only sees social services in the shadow of law enforcement.

Ask yourself: Is law enforcement suffering like social services? Why is there funding for bigger jails but not for adequate social services? Think about it. Fresno County’s answer to better social services is simply more policing and bigger jails.

What do the youth caught up in the system look like? Well, according to the California Child Welfare Indicators Project, they look Brown. Their disparity indices research shows that children of color are about three times more likely to have contact with their local child welfare system than White children.

Which color or race do you think were the majority of the kids who were forced to sleep on the ground or on conference tables in Fresno county offices—do you think they were White?

The answer to a better Fresno County does not reside in bigger and better jails or aggressive policing of people of color. Instead, the answer to healing Fresno County abides in sustainable social services and accessible public education for all. This is the paradigm shift that is so desperately needed today, one that protects and nurtures our youth, not makes them sleep on the stiff, cold Fresno County floor.

*****

I smiley G. Calderón is a Gen X Chicano and lifelong educator who spent a career in academia in Southern California but is most proud of being a father.

  • I.smileyG.Calderón is a Gen X Southern California Chicano now recently living in the Central Valley; a lifelong educator who spent a career in academia, he believes in building individual and collective human capital through the accessible application of education.  #HealthCareForAll  -smileygcalderon@gmail.com

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