Kansas social workers call for review of privatized child welfare system

? Kansas lawmakers have tentatively agreed to authorize a wide-ranging audit of current practices within the Department for Children and Families, including its management of foster care services and whether the agency is routinely discriminating against gay and lesbian families when placing children in either temporary or permanent homes.

But some who have worked within the system say the problems at DCF go beyond its current policies and practices. Although conditions have become noticeably worse in recent years, they say, the root of the problem dates back to a decision made nearly 20 years ago to privatize the state’s child welfare system.

“In a nutshell, I think that almost 20 years into privatization, what we’ve seen is exactly opposite of what they intended,” said Sky Westerlund, executive director of the Kansas Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. “It has not cost the state less. It has not created efficiencies. It has not created the one-child, one-social worker model.”

From June 1996 through May 1997, Kansas handed over the day-to-day job of administering family preservation, foster care and adoption services to outside contractors. It was the state’s response to a class action lawsuit that one Topeka lawyer had filed against the agency, then known as the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, for its alleged mismanagement of child welfare programs, leading to the violation of those children’s civil rights.

Westerlund, who has led the association since the early days of privatization, still has a report in her office from that time, detailing what state officials expected to happen once services were handed over to outside contractors who, presumably, could be more efficient than the state agency.

“That’s what they envisioned, that they would have long-term staff, and it would stabilize the system,” she said. “What has happened is, advocates have become the contractors, and it has basically shut down their advocacy. It’s very hard to speak up and speak out about problems that are going on. It has fractured the system because there are too many bureaucracies on the private side and on the public side.”

Incentive to cut costs

Westerlund, who worked for a private adoption contractor before taking over the association, said she bases her assessment of current conditions within the system on what she hears from social workers in the field, many of whom she said are reluctant to speak out publicly.

But she said one thing that does come through when talking to social workers in the field is that the privatized system leads the contractors to become overly concerned about holding down costs, leading to staff shortages, high turnover rates and ineffective services.

“I don’t know if you would call it incentives,” she said. “I think that’s something that happens, though. They are trying to cut costs. They are trying to stay within the costs of what they’ve contracted with the state. They’re not going to go over that. They’re not going to take a loss if they can prevent that. It’s much more money-focused.”

Douglas County District Court Judge Peggy Kittel has expressed concern in recent months about the high turnover rate among social workers, noting that one child in her courtroom recently had been assigned to seven different case managers in just two years.

Westerlund said she has seen it, too, and not just in Douglas County.

“When kids are outlasting the workers in the child welfare system, that indicates a very unstable system for them,” Westerlund said. “They’re coming from families that are not functioning well, and they’re being put into a system that’s not functioning well.”

Hiring unlicensed workers

In response, DCF announced last month that it has started hiring other kinds of professionals to perform the jobs of social workers, including people with advanced degrees in psychology, counseling, and marriage and family counseling.

But both the agency and its contractors have also started hiring for positions that require no degree at all, “special investigators,” as they are called at DCF, and “family support workers,” as they’re called by KVC Behavioral Healthcare Kansas, the contractor for the eastern Kansas region, including Douglas County.

They work under the supervision of licensed social workers and perform some of the tasks previously reserved for licensed workers, such as making home visits and interviewing people involved in abuse and neglect cases.

“Special investigators certainly help in this way,” said DCF spokeswoman Theresa Freed. “Some of our special investigators are former law enforcement with decades of experience. They simply want to serve the public in a different capacity.”

But Rebecca Proctor, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, the union that represents DCF social workers, said it’s not a solution to the real problem.

“They haven’t been able to attract new social workers,” Proctor said. “Pay is low, working conditions are not great. And so instead of looking at raising pay scales or telling the Legislature, ‘Hey, we need to look after the safety of Kansas children; we need to get a pay raise for these people,’ instead, they’re dumbing down the qualifications for these people and saying anybody with a high school diploma can do this.

“The fallout for kids and the families, at least based on the feedback we’ve received, is you don’t necessarily have the most qualified person making the determination about what should happen with that child,” Proctor said. “And that’s truly sad.”

DCF said its decision was based on a shortage of available licensed social workers.

“Unfortunately, fewer people are entering this field,” the agency said in a Nov. 13 news release. “DCF is experiencing a shortage of social workers in many regions of the state, especially western Kansas.”

Westerlund, however, said there is no shortage of social workers in Kansas.

According to the Kansas Behavioral Sciences Board, there are currently 7,286 licensed social workers in the state, and for the past four years, the board has been issuing an average of about 700 new licenses each year.

DCF said it employs 375 social workers and has 65 vacant positions.

“So I think it’s more accurate to say there’s a shortage of professional social workers who want to work in that system,” she said. “It doesn’t support their career.”