Social workers arrested in fight to save East San Jose family resource center
Valerie Pickering, an emergency response social worker supervisor for the Santa Clara County Department of Family and Children's Services, was arrested after a protest on Thursday. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

More than a dozen activists were arrested Thursday in San Jose after blocking a street to protest Santa Clara County’s decision to close its Department of Family and Children’s Services on North King Road and move the family resource center to its campus on West Julian Street — more than three miles away.

The social workers who run the programs at San Jose Family Resource Center (SJFRC) on the city’s east side, staged the act of civil disobedience by blocking North King Road and refusing to disperse as ordered by San Jose Police. Protesters coordinated with the police department to safely exercise their First Amendment rights, allowing the workers to make their statement — without placing lives in danger. Those arrested were given citations and released within minutes.

Veronica De Leon, 46, a social worker supervisor at the center, was among those put in handcuffs.

“Moving the center would be the end of it,” said De Leon, who has worked at the center for the last 15 years. “We’ve been here for 25 years, and the purpose of a family resource center is to be in the community where the services are needed.”

County social workers from San Jose Family Resource Center, also members of SEIU Local 521, marched in the street and blocked traffic to protest the county’s plans to move the services provided on Sept. 19, 2019. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

De Leon said 100 social workers and support staff at the center provide services to thousands of residents across the city. But many of their clients are non-English speakers from immigrant families who live in East San Jose.

“We’ve spent years building trust and supportive relationships with the east side community,” De Leon said, “Instead of providing additional resources for the growing needs, the county is dismantling services.”

The county’s Department of Family and Children’s Services did not respond to a request for comment from San José Spotlight. A notice on the department’s website says “The SJFRC will no longer be providing services at the 591 N. King Rd. location after Thursday, October 24, 2019. Effective Monday, October 28, 2019, the SJFRC will be located at 353 W. Julian Street.”

The reasons behind the closure are unclear.

“The county wants to close this amazing center down,” said Riko Mendez, chief elected officer of SEIU Local 521, the union that represents more than 10,000 county workers including social workers at the center. “The administration says this is just a move and all the services will remain the same and that everyone will continue to go to the new location.”

Mendez, who was also among those arrested Thursday, said county officials told the union the move will be good for social workers and their clients.

But De Leon said clients at the resource center come from diverse backgrounds, not just Hispanic and Latinx families — but also Asian-Pacific Islanders and African immigrants  —  and have been coming to the center for years to get help from social workers in their native languages, from Hindi and Tagalog to Cantonese and Spanish.

“By leaving, we are setting up these families to fail,” De Leon said. “This is where we should be, and this is where our community needs us.”

Nearly 40 people marched down North King Road toward Las Plumas, chanting and carrying banners saying “Save The Family Resource Center” in English and “Don’t Close The Center” in Spanish. They marched around the four sides of the intersection while a smaller group sat down in the middle of the street. The union says 14 of its members were arrested.

The protest came as Mendez’s union prepares for its more than 11,000 members to strike after negotiations for a new contract with the county administration stalled. Mendez’s members are asking for raises, in addition to resources for child care and health care. South Bay labor leaders sanctioned the strike last week and members voted last month by overwhelming majority to strike.

Riko Mendez, chief elected officer of SEIU Local 521, was arrested during a protest in East San Jose Thursday Sept. 19. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

“That’s what they think of all of us, this entire 12,000 person chapter, potentially going on strike,” Mendez said. “They think that all we care about is money, that we only care about our benefits. But I’ve talked with thousands of our members and each of them genuinely cares about and believes in the services that we provide to vulnerable populations in Santa Clara County.”

Ben Field, executive officer of the South Bay Labor Council, said members from more than 100 other unions represented by the council stand with the social workers in East San Jose.

“Your brothers and sisters are backing your courageous stance to strike,” Field told the demonstrators after the protest. “I saw that courage today. Courage in the face of the heat from the sky and the heat in the street — your brothers and sisters in the (police officers association). Seeing Riko take an arrest was an inspiration.”

Contact Adam F. Hutton at afhutton.sjspotlight@gmail.com or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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