By Sarah Thomas
In 2014, Los Angeles County’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection issued a scathing report that pointed out that the social workers investigating emergency cases of child abuse and neglect were often the least experienced.
The report connects this finding with another critical insight: First responders are often the weakest link in the chain, contributing to otherwise preventable child fatalities and injuries.
This December, Megan Healy became an emergency response social worker investigator for the Department of Children and Family Services’ (DCFS) San Fernando Valley office. In speaking with Healy, one gets a very different impression of the training emergency response workers go through than depicted by the blue ribbon commission.
Far from being inexperienced and underqualified, Healy’s training for the position was extensive.
Healy graduated with a master’s in social work (MSW) from the University of Southern California in 2014. She participated in a stipend program at her university funded by Title IV-E of the Social Security Act. A recent study suggests additional training from stipend programs such as Healy’s better prepares MSW graduates to be successful social workers. During her time at USC, she interned at the Department of Children and Family Services and joined as a full time Continuing Services Worker after graduation.
After receiving additional training at the department’s recently upgraded Core Academy, which uses simulations to prepare social workers for difficult investigations, Healy transferred to the Emergency Response division in December. Emergency Response is a high-pressure job. Healy manages her paperwork and phone calls from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm and spends the rest of the day in the field investigating families that DCFS refers to her.
“USC gave me the skills to be a social worker,” Healy said. “[The academy] showed me how to use the skills.”
In year one of her two-year MSW program, she applied for the University Consortium for Children and Families (UCCF) stipend program, known at the time as the Inter-University Consortium (IUC). The UCCF is a federally-funded program and a joint venture with the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services. The program offers a stipend of $18,500 per year for two years. Upon graduation, UCCF students are required to complete one calendar year of paid employment at DCFS. Seven MSW programs in L.A. participate in the program.
A 2013 study interviewed 88 deans and assistant deans of social work schools using Title IV-E funds and found that universities reported their Title IV-E graduates were generally retained in child welfare longer and showed more commitment than their counterparts without the stipend program.
The recently improved academy at the Department of Children and Family Services was also critical for teaching Healy how to investigate for abuse and neglect.
The academy was revamped after the high profile death of eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend after social workers dismissed earlier reports of abuse as “unfounded.” Now the academy, which spans four to six months and emphasizes real life simulations, provides more thorough training.
How does all this training stack up for Healy?
She says that the learning curve can be “stressful” for rookies.
“It takes you two years to learn the job,” Healy said, repeating a motto she’s heard from other county social workers.
Regardless, Healy says she loves her job and feels confident in her skills.
About the difficult task of collecting evidence for her investigations, she said she felt unsure at first. Five months later, she is more self-assured.
“I know what I need to know. I don’t feel like I missed anything.”
Sarah Thomas is a Masters of Social Work and Masters of Public Administration candidate at USC in Los Angeles. She wrote this story as a student in the Media for Policy Change course.