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The Largest Child Protection Agency in the Country—What Can They do to Better Serve the Children?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Melissa Nieto
November 23, 2020

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk surrounding the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) due to a Netflix documentary which described the neglect, abuse and unfortunate death, of a boy named Gabriel Fernandez. The documentary mentioned that DCFS oversaw Gabriel’s case but regrettably failed to intervene in the abuse allegations. Sadly, Gabriel died at the hands of his abusers. Also mentioned in the documentary, is the fact that DCFS is overflowing with cases and does not have enough case workers to handle them. The Los Angeles DCFS is the largest child protection agency in the country. It is overseen by a director and 16 other leaders including a chief deputy director and two senior directors. The leadership has more than 9,000 staff members and serve over 30,000 children each year. Also overseeing DCFS is a Board of Supervisors created by the County of Los Angeles. I believe that Baumgartner and Jones’ “Punctuated equilibrium,” resulting from Gabriel’s case creates a perfect time to implement changes in DCFS.

To implement changes in DCFS and better serve the children, a restructuring of the organization needs to take place. The restructuring could allow for some of the reports of child abuse to be taken off case workers’ desks so that they may focus on fewer reports at a time and they can better intervene in crisis situations. It is evident that DCFS is not meeting its goal of supporting children and families in crisis, because audits have found that DCFS has been inconsistent when responding to reports, and as in Gabriel’s case, children died as a result of lack of timely intervention.

Implementing a hybrid of a team model, in addition to the current bureaucratic model, between DCFS offices and the county sheriff’s department could help improve the quality of intervention. For example, there are many times when social workers are too busy to respond to reports within the required timeframe. In those instances, DCFS should rely on the sheriff’s department to step up and help. If sheriff deputies are properly trained to visit and evaluate the situation and report back to the case worker, there could be a reduction in the reports that are not reviewed in a timely manner, thus resulting in a higher intervention and response rate. Having the case workers and the sheriff’s department work together as a team could save more children from their abusive homes.

Additionally, it is imperative to incentivize and find ways to boost morale within the organization so that case workers and other staff are better motivated to help children. In the public sector, employees have a desire to serve others. They have public service motivation, but sometimes that is not enough. One way to increase morale and motivation would be implementing yearly reviews of case workers and the time it takes them to respond to reports of child abuse. DCFS could then provide bonuses to case workers who rank the highest each year. Furthermore, an article surrounding Gabriel’s case mentioned that case workers often would not want to work in certain offices due to the negative views of that specific office which is similar to Schneider and Ingram’s social construction of so-called undesirable populations.

However, if case workers are given incentives, they may be more willing to work in offices which need the most help. Much like private companies that give signing bonuses to employees who relocate to other parts of the region, DCFS could do the same with case workers. In addition to incentivizing new case workers, DCFS should work on bringing a positive image to each of its regional offices so that in the future, case workers would be open to working where help is needed most, and not which office is perceived as “better”.

As with all major changes within an organization, we can expect there to be conflict, but how conflict is addressed is what defines how successful the changes can be. Resistance to change can be threatening, which is why it is important for managers to empathize with the employees. Employees directly impacted by the changes should be given an opportunity to voice their concerns and management should provide a resolution, as much as possible, for their concerns. For the proposed changes to work, there must be a collaboration and inclusion of all staff members within DCFS, not just management alone. Rainey mentions in Understanding and Managing Public Organizations (2014), that ideas should be developed and nurtured. It is important to hear the employees because their objections could prove to be beneficial for new ideas.

In summary, implementing a team approach, boosting morale and providing a change process that allows for employee engagement and input and to minimize conflict can help resolve the issues within DCFS and improve response to child abuse reports. Eventually, I believe there needs to be extensive research in why child abuse is so high in LA County; perhaps finding a proactive solution instead of reactive interventions.


Melissa Nieto
Master’s Candidate
Master of Public Administration Program, University of Houston [email protected]

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