LAO 2005-06 Budget Analysis: General Government

Analysis of the 2005-06 Budget Bill

Legislative Analyst's Office
February 2005

Child Welfare Services

California's state-supervised, county-administered Child Welfare Services (CWS) program provides services to abused and neglected children, children in foster care, and their families. The CWS program provides (1) immediate social worker response to allegations of child abuse and neglect; (2) ongoing services to children and their families who have been identified as victims, or potential victims, of abuse and neglect; and (3) services to children in foster care who have been temporarily or permanently removed from their family because of abuse or neglect. The 2005-06 Governor's Budget proposes $2.2 billion from all funds, including $645 million from the General Fund, for CWS. This represents an increase of 4 percent from the General Fund over current-year expenditures. This increase is primarily due to a restoration of CWS augmentation funding (discussed further below), increased automation funds, and new program activities, partially offset by declining emergency shelter and direct services costs.

Measuring Progress in Workload Standards

In April 2000, a legislatively required workload study presented minimal and optimal child welfare services case carrying ratios for social workers. Although base funding for child welfare services remains well below these minimal standards, the current budget display overstates the severity of the standards "gap" because it ignores important funding sources and necessary caseload adjustments. Our review indicates that California has made significant progress toward meeting the minimum workload standards. In order to assist the Legislature in monitoring future progress toward meeting these standards, we recommend enactment of legislation requiring the Department of Social Services to provide an annual report to the Legislature which shows where each county, based on total funding and caseload, stands in relation to the workload standards.


The Child Welfare Services program is responsible for providing intervention and services which address child abuse and neglect. The core of the program is made up of five components:

Child Welfare Services Projected Caseload. As Figure 1 shows, the Department of Social Services estimates that there will be, on average, over 167,000 cases involved in the CWS program each month during 2005-06. Most of those cases are either an emergency response investigation case or a permanent placement case.

Figure 1

Average Monthly CWS Caseload by Component






Emergency Response Assessment



Emergency Response



Family Maintenance



Family Reunification



Permanent Placement






   Detail may not total due to rounding.

Child Welfare Services Funding Streams. Funding for the CWS program comes from a variety of state, federal, and local sources. Federal funding is provided through Titles IV, XIX, and XX of the Social Security Act. The state also uses Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funding for Emergency Assistance cases. In addition to federal funds, the state and counties provide support, with the state providing 70 percent and the counties providing 30 percent. The proposed budget for 2005-06 requests a total of $2.2 billion ($645 million state General Fund) for the child welfare services program.

Appropriate Level of Social Worker Caseloads. There has been an ongoing effort in the Child Welfare Services program to determine how many cases a social worker can carry and still effectively do his or her job. In 1984, the County Welfare Directors Association (CWDA) and the Department of Social Services established an agreed upon level of cases for each of the five child welfare components. In 2000, the Child Welfare Services Workload Study required by Chapter 785, Statutes of 1998 (SB 2030, Costa) determined that those caseload standards were too high and that social workers had too many cases to effectively ensure the safety and well-being of California's children. The SB 2030 Study, as it is commonly called, proposed revised minimum and optimum caseload standards for social workers. In the following section, we provide a detailed discussion of those findings.

Child Welfare Services Workload Study (SB 2030) Findings

In 1998, the Department of Social Services commissioned the SB 2030 study of counties' caseloads. At the time, the study concluded that for most categories the caseloads per-worker were twice the recommended levels. According to the study, it was difficult for social workers to provide services or maintain meaningful contact with children and their families because of the number of cases they were expected to carry.

The report also found that the 1984 standards used by the state were based on outdated workload factors, and did not reflect any additional responsibilities that had been placed on social workers by the state and federal governments. These findings and the minimal and optimal social worker standards proposed by the report (illustrated in Figure 2), have dominated budget discussions regarding staffing standards since the report's release. However, due to the state's budget shortfalls, the department has continued to use the 1984 workload standards, instead of the minimal and optimal standards, as the basis for allocating funds to counties for child welfare services staff.

Figure 2

Workload Standards
Cases Per Social Worker


Emergency Response Assessment

Emergency Response



Permanent Placement

1984 Workload Standards






SB 2030 Standards:


















The continued use of the 1984 workload standard to determine the CWS "base line" funding amount, however, does not mean that the state has not improved social worker caseload staffing ratios. As discussed in the following section, several funding policies, and one estimating error, have moved California considerably closer to the SB 2030 standards and that gap continues to shrink every year.

Child Welfare Services Budget Components

Several funding elements make up the total funding for core child welfare services. When these pieces are looked at in their entirety, California has made significant progress toward improving social worker staffing ratios.

Base Funding. The estimate for the basic funding for child welfare services includes funding for the projected cases at the agreed upon 1984 social worker ratios, any emergency shelter costs, and any other direct services that the county will be providing. Those direct services include activities such as counseling and drug testing. The 2005-06 proposed budget includes $742 million in total funding ($267 million General Fund) for the base funding.

Hold Harmless. In preparing the budget for CWS, the Department of Social Services (DSS) adjusts proposed funding upward when the caseload increases, but does not adjust funding downward when the caseload actually decreases. The practice of not adjusting the budget to reflect caseload decline is known as the "hold harmless" approach, though DSS technically refers to this as the base funding adjustment.

This hold harmless method was established by DSS with the inception of the CWS Case Management System (CWS/CMS) that tracks the CWS caseload. Initial caseload data from the CWS/CMS system showed a dramatic reduction in the CWS caseload from the previously reported caseload. Because of uncertainty about the accuracy of the CWS/CMS data, DSS decided to use 1997-98 pre-CWS/CMS caseload data as its base and has not reduced the number of social workers since that time.

However, as of January 1999, DSS determined that the CWS/CMS data were "cleaned up" and reliable. Despite that determination and a steadily declining CWS caseload, DSS has retained the hold harmless methodology for its CWS estimate. In the 2005-06 proposed budget, DSS has included a total of $240 million for the hold harmless adjustment, an increase of almost $40 million over 2004-05. In other words, this budget policy provides counties with $240 million more than needed to meet the 1984 standards.

CWS Augmentation. The Legislature has been concerned about the large caseloads carried by social workers in many counties. As a result, the Legislature established the CWS augmentation in 1998 and increased the amount available in 2000. These funds are targeted for services provided for Emergency Response, Family Maintenance, Family Reunification, and Permanent Placement cases. These funds cannot be used to supplant existing CWS funding. They must supplement the base funding. In addition, unlike the rest of the CWS funding, there is no county share of funds for the augmentation. It is entirely supported by federal funds and the state General Fund. For 2005-06, the Governor's budget proposes $90.7 million in total funds for the augmentation ($57 million General Fund). Like the hold harmless funds, these monies enable counties to hire more caseworkers and move toward the SB 2030 standards.

Caseload Error. The administration includes children living with non-related legal guardians (NRLG) in its CWS caseload and funding estimates. However, these children are not part of the CWS caseload and do not receive social worker visits. This effectively inflates the funding for the permanent placement caseload by approximately 9 percent, or $17.4 million ($4.7 million General Fund). (Please see the following writeup for our recommendation associated with this budgeting error.)

Total Proposed Funding. Figure 3 shows the proposed total social worker funding (including General Fund) for 2005-06. In total, counties would receive $348 million more than what is necessary to achieve the 1984 standards.

Figure 3

Total Proposed Social Worker Funding by Component

(In Millions)



General Fund

Base Funding



Additional Funding



Hold Harmless



CWS Augmentation



NRLG Caseload



  Total Additional Funding






Revised Social Worker Staffing Ratios

As noted above, when all funding sources are taken into account, the counties have approximately $348 million in additional funding above what would be needed to support the 1984 social worker staffing levels. Based on this increase, we calculated what the revised staffing ratios would be in 2005-06. Figure 4 compares projected staffing ratios in 2005-06 with the minimal standards assuming these funds are spent by program component in the same way as the basic funding.

Figure 4

Social Worker Caseloads
Current Gap in Standards, by Component

Staffing Ratios

Emergency Response Assessment

Emergency Response



Permanent Placement

Minimal Standard






2005-06 Budget






  Gap (-)/Surplus (+)






Specifically, Figure 4 shows the number of cases each social worker would carry in 2005-06 compared to the SB 2030 minimal standards. When the caseload level supported by the proposed funding level for 2005-06 exceeds the minimal SB 2030 standards, we refer to the difference as a "gap." For example, the 2005-06 budget proposal assumes that caseworkers will carry 23.1 family maintenance cases, while the minimal standard calls for a lower caseload of 14.2 cases per social worker. Thus, there is a gap of 8.9 cases between the funded level and the SB 2030 minimal standards.

Due to the additional funding that has been dedicated to reducing social worker caseloads, CWS social workers are now handling significantly fewer cases than prescribed by the 1984 standards and are moving closer to meeting SB 2030 minimal standards. Figure 5 shows the difference (or gap) in the number of cases required to be carried under the 1984 standard and the SB 2030 minimal standard. For example, the gap between the number of cases required to be carried by a social worker under the 1984 standard and the SB 2030 minimal standard is 11.4 cases for family reunification. The figure also shows the reduction in this gap, in other words, the reduction in the number of cases carried by social workers based upon the proposed 2005-06 budget. For example, in 1984, social workers were asked to carry 11.4 more family reunification cases than the minimal standards established later by the SB 2030 study. Under the proposed budget, social workers will be carrying 9.5 fewer cases than in 1984. This caseload reduction eliminates 83 percent of the gap between the two standards. For Permanent Placement, the state has closed 71 percent of the gap. In Emergency Response Assessment and Family Maintenance, the state is clearly above the 1984 standards, but is well below the minimum staffing levels recommended by the SB 2030 study.

Figure 5

Reduction in Social Worker Caseload
Compared to 1984 Standards, by Component


Emergency Response

Emergency Response



Permanent Placement

1984 Standard Gapa






Reduction in Caseloadb






Percentage of Gap Closed






a    Difference in number of cases required to be carried under the 1984 Standard and the SB 2030 minimal standard.

b    Reduction based on proposed 2005-06 funding level.

Caseload Impact. Over the past several years, caseloads in CWS have steadily declined. If that decline continues, more funds will shift to the hold harmless adjustment. Such additional hold harmless funds will enable the counties to continue making progress toward the SB 2030 standards. However, should this trend change and caseloads begin to grow, the state will reverse direction and move closer to the 1984 workload standards.

County Variance. It is important to note that counties are not required to spend their hold harmless or augmentation funding using the same ratio as the base funding. Therefore, counties may be targeting their funds on specific components and have different social worker to case ratios than shown in Figures 4 and 5. In addition, because caseloads are declining in some counties and not others, the amount of hold harmless funding for each county will vary. Therefore, the statewide caseload ratios presented represent an average and will not be the same for every county.

LAO Recommendation

We believe that the Legislature should be informed of the progress that is being made toward reducing social worker caseloads and the steady movement toward the SB 2030 recommendations. Toward this end, we recommend enactment of legislation that requires DSS to submit a county specific social worker staffing ratio report annually no later than January 31. This report should provide for each county the social worker staffing ratios compared to the Child Welfare Services Workload Study's (SB 2030) minimum and optimum caseload standards and the agreed upon 1984 standards. The methodology for measuring the individual county staffing ratios should take into account funding from the CWS augmentation, hold harmless funding, and any other funding that is used for social worker staffing. We note that the additional workload generated by this requirement would be minimal because the current budget is built individually for each of the 58 counties. Therefore, there should not be any state staffing increases needed to produce this report.

Child Welfare Services Overbudgeted

We recommend that the proposed expenditures for Child Welfare Services (CWS) be reduced by $4.8 million from the General Fund because the department has included funding in the CWS program for approximately 5,000 children who are not receiving services. (Reduce Item 5180-151-0001 by $4,786,000.)

The data used for projecting the permanent placement caseload for the CWS budget estimate includes approximately 5,000 children who have been placed with non-related legal guardians (NRLGs) by the probate courts. However, these children have not been removed from their homes by the dependency court, have been voluntarily relinquished by their parents, and are not at risk of abuse or neglect. Because these children are not receiving the services and regular social worker visits that a foster child receives, they should not be included in the CWS caseload estimates for budgeting purposes.

Analyst's Recommendation. Based upon the current caseload forecasts, these NRLG children account for approximately 9 percent of the permanent placement caseload. Therefore, the $196.5 million (total dollars) proposed for funding the permanent placement cases should be reduced by 9 percent to $179 million, which constitutes a savings of $17.5 million total funds ($4.8 million General Fund). We recommend reducing the Child Welfare Services budget by $4.8 million from the General Fund to correct for this overbudgeting.

Because the state remains below the minimal SB 2030 workload standards in four of the five CWS components, the Legislature could redirect identified savings from base funding to this purpose.

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