Although David Green often wears his advocacy hat these days, representing the Service Employees International Union’s (SEUI) local chapter, Green has been a social worker with the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services for 16 years. Empathy is a language he speaks fluently.
“There’s a famous quote from Kofi Annan that the most important measure of how society succeeds or fails is how they treat their children… I believe that in my heart,” Green says as we sit at a large conference table in “the war room” on the 8th floor of SEIU Local 721’s offices.
We’re discussing the role of policy in child welfare–far from the front lines where social workers make tough decisions on a daily basis. But David speaks as though there are children and families sitting at the table with us, as though they accompany him to work each day.
“The difference between reality and what goes on on the frontline for social workers and policy is sometimes a Grand Canyon-sized gap between what our families need and what the policy is. So I feel like it’s part of our role, our job, our duty, to advocate for our families through policies that really meet their needs,” Green says.
Social workers are the professionals who visit a family’s home when a report of suspected child abuse or neglect is made. They advocate for the best interests of the child and work with the birth family to address any needs the family might have. This might include connecting them with resources such as parenting classes or counseling. In the case that the child is removed from the home and placed into foster care, social workers monitor children throughout their time spent in foster care.
In social work, Green describes policy as a road map for social workers. It’s a set of guiding principles that provides social workers with mile-markers and turning points, guiding them as they help birth families and children navigate the foster care system on their journey toward permanency. Whether that means reuniting a child with their parents, or placing the child with an adoptive family, Green believes a policy informs every decision a social worker makes about a family.
Los Angeles County is home to just under 4,000 county-employed social workers and 30,000 foster children. As of 2013, social workers were required to follow a manual containing 6,000 individual policies.
“We actually stacked them up one day and it was the size of a small child,” Green says. ‘We called for a 20 percent reduction… we said ‘less paperwork, more social work.'”
Many of these 6,000 policies were redundant and originated from a desire to protect workers and Los Angeles County from liability should things go wrong, Green says, but he believes there’s been a shift away from that mentality in recent years.
“As social workers we say ‘let’s create policies that really help our families and children,’ you know? If families are needing bus passes or additional counseling and more services or mental health care for parents, let’s create a policy that really supports those families who need it, or provide other resources–not just create a policy that’s some knee-jerk reaction to an event that happened,” Green says.
According to Green, from the moment someone calls the hotline to report suspected abuse or neglect, to the day a child is reunited with their birth parents or made eligible for adoption, everything is defined by policy.
“Every move we [social workers] make, there’s a policy or a set of guidelines and rules, so it’s really important to make sure those [steps] that were taken are supportive of the families,” Green says. “The bottom line is always keep children with their families, so we need our policies to be indicative of that.”
Green acknowledges that being a children’s social worker is a tough job, but it’s not without rewards.
“I can think about those success stories of seeing a mom that had struggled with substance abuse reunify with her kids– and the look on the mom’s face and the kids that they don’t have to be part of the system–that they have what they need and they’ve succeeded,” Green says.
Turnover is very common in the field of social work, generally due to the psychological and emotional strain of the job – what’s often called “burn out.” Green is in the process of designing a mentoring program which pairs new social workers with experienced social workers, ensuring that less experienced team members get more sophisticated on-the-job training and support. And although Green is primarily concerned with foster children in Los Angeles County, his work extends to the state and federal level. Green educates legislators and regularly advocates for bills which will impact birth families who have landed in the child welfare system.
“We’re involved in all that, because we really feel that we need to not just elect folks but also hold those folks accountable on issues around foster care and child welfare issues,” Green says.
When Green is asked what he thinks people should know about social work, he emphasizes the intentions of social workers and the philosophy behind the profession.
“I would want the average citizen to know that we really believe – as social workers – that every child deserves to be nurtured and have a safe place to live. Now your hope is that that’s with their parents, but sometimes that’s not possible, and it’s one of the most painful decisions that a social worker can make to detain a child,” Green says.