In whistleblower fashion, Fresno County social workers stepped forward Thursday to reveal the nightmarish scenes taking place for youth held in downtown Fresno.
At a news conference, they documented that minors under the custody of Fresno County Child Protective Services face harsh, unsafe, and unsanitary living conditions.
The social workers represented by Service Employees International Union Local 521 provided testimonials, photographs, and stories from the front lines and demanded solutions for what they described as a “crisis.”
The conditions were first revealed earlier this week in a Fresno Bee story.
Watch: Humanitarian Crisis on L Street
Inhumane Conditions Await Children Under CPS Custody
The affected children await new homes after being removed from their parent’s custody.
Photos show children sleeping on mats atop conference room tables and floors amid water bottles filled with urine. Broken glass and scattered items were also depicted. One of the photos showed two police officers in the back of the room surveying their living conditions.
The photos were taken at the CWS Office on L Street in Fresno — the main hub for Fresno County’s Child Protective Services.
Social Worker Shares Her Testimony
At the forefront of these explosive revelations was Lorraine Ramirez, a veteran social worker with Fresno County Department of Social Services.
Ramirez became emotional as she described the difficulties young children go through while in custody.
“I have grandchildren, and my sister adopted two children from DSS,” said Ramirez. “I could not imagine them being placed in this type of condition — it breaks my heart.”
She shared that oftentimes, these young children and adolescents have nothing healthy to eat and are given fast food such as pizza and McDonald’s burgers.
“The lights do not turn off, they are on 24/7,” said Ramirez. “Some kids come needing showers and the department has failed to meet these needs.”
Minors sleep on thin yoga mats and others attempt to harm themselves or threaten staff, she said.
Ramirez went on to share a letter given to her by a former youth under CPS custody. In the letter, the youth states that her experience with CPS has been good and bad, but that being stuck in the building would trigger mental health problems.
Who is at Fault?
Like many other underfunded social services, Fresno County’s child welfare system is poorly staffed. Thus social workers perform an exorbitant amount of work that in large part goes unnoticed and is unappreciated.
As the workload piles up, so do their stacks of non-crisis referrals. Now, social workers are demanding increased staffing and better training. In addition, they want improved working conditions and better wages. All of these things are needed to end the crisis, social workers said.
Social worker Hector Cerda said that the state of the agency has been unmanageable for some time. He called on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors to do the right thing. Without better leadership, he said, nothing will change.
“These conditions are all unnecessary and social workers are tired of turning a blind eye,” said Cerda.
Protest Tensions Run High
Fresno County County Administrative Officer Jean Rousseau stepped to the podium to answer questions raised by the media and social workers.
About an hour before the protest, Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) said that the dire conditions were “painfully obvious” and called on Gov. Gavin Newsom and state agencies to improve conditions for the youth.
However, his comments frequently were drowned out by the voices of the disgruntled social workers.
Rousseau said he wanted to apologize to at-risk children and to the social workers. He then went on to address the issues in some part by putting an emphasis on the pandemic and a lack of state funding.
But social workers pointed out that the lack of supplies and adequate shelter for the children predated the pandemic by at least 20 years.
“Someone dropped the ball and maybe someone needs to be fired,” said Cerda, who called for an investigation into the department’s upper management.
In the end, Rousseau admitted that more should have been done by the county to address the needs of these children. Moving forward, he said, the county will take the required steps to make things right.
“It breaks my heart,” said Rousseau, who acknowledged that the conditions are inexcusable.
Looking Ahead, Serious Help and Attention Needed
“Social workers are tired of seeing that neglect happen,” said Ramirez. “We take neglect by the department, but we are adults, these are children.”
The county will continue placing minors in the CWS Office on L Street while leaders figure out a way to come up with temporary housing. A new CWS facility in Clovis is set to open at the end of November.