Douglas County Judge Peggy Kittel cited an example of a child who recently appeared in her courtroom and had been in the state’s child welfare system for two years. During that time, turnover at the agency that contracts with the state to provide case management services for such children had resulted in seven different case workers being assigned to resolve problems so the child could return home or to find another placement for that child.
Each of those case workers may have been doing his or her best to help this child, but, with so much turnover, how can they make much progress? Kittel said she couldn’t pinpoint the reason for the high turnover. “I don’t know if they’re overwhelmed by the type of cases we’re dealing with, or if their case loads are too high or they’re not getting enough support … But it’s affecting our ability to help these families in crisis.”
Even if this was an isolated incident, it would be a serious concern, but officials with the Kansas Department of Children and Families indicate that Douglas County and KVC Behavioral Healthcare, the state’s local contractor, are not alone in this problem. A DCF representative told the Journal-World that fewer people are applying for and accepting positions at child welfare agencies across the state. To help deal with that situation, she said, the department is “offering incentives” to try to retain more social workers.
The department also is trying to fill the gap by allowing people without social work degrees to be hired as “family support workers.” Although some of those workers may have other skills and experience that qualify them for the work they are doing, a current advertisement on the KVC website lists a high school degree or GED and “experience working with children” as the only job requirements. “Previous experience in children and family services and a bachelor’s degree in human services preferred,” it adds.
If the family support workers can stick with a case for a longer period of time, Kansas children and families may actually benefit, but that doesn’t eliminate the need for DCF to address the problem of high turnover among professional social workers. Is the pay too low? Is the caseload too large? Are work conditions a problem? Are social workers not getting the support they need from the contract agencies?
According to state figures, Kansas has about 6,500 children in its foster care system at any one time, and, since 2011, more children have been coming into the system each month than have been exiting. One can’t help but wonder if children are lingering in the system longer because of the high turnover in case managers — a situation that would be detrimental both to the children and to state taxpayers.
These children are in the state system because they need some help, and the system currently seems to be letting at least some of those children down. DCF officials should give top priority to resolving the turnover problem and providing more consistent help to the Kansas children who need it.