FF12: DCF child welfare investigators face high caseloads

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Kan. (KWCH) The names resonate in communities in Kansas. Zaiden Javonovich, Evan Brewer, Tony Bunn, Lucas Hernandez and Caleb Blansett are just a few of the children who died under the care of their parents or guardians.

In light of those and many other cases, people in the community have been questioning the Kansas Department for Children and Families wondering how caseworkers handle these cases and if they're overworked. FactFinder 12 has heard from many complaining of high caseloads and burnout within DCF.

Now, FactFinder 12 has the numbers to prove it.

"The Child Welfare League of America would say that our abuse investigators should have caseloads of 12," DCF Secretary Laura Howard said.

But in Kansas, as of March 2018, DCF abuse investigators had almost 21 cases per worker at a time. Howard said some regions have workers with 25 or 26 cases at a time. Howard said the number has improved and, on average, workers have roughly 16 cases at a time, but that's still higher than what the national goal calls for.

"What happened to get us to this point?" FactFinder 12 Investigator Devon Fasbinder asked.

Howard replied, "In many ways, fewer resources in terms of funding available for staffing. Also, more challenges in recruitment, particularly with social workers. There's really a significant shortage of social workers and that's not just a Kansas problem. But we do experience that here in Kansas."

Howard also says the high number of children in foster care mean there are a high number of cases in Kansas. She says that adds to the caseloads for workers in abuse and neglect.

The DCF Secretary also talked about the difficulty in hiring and keeping caseworkers in Kansas adding to the issue.

"Why is it difficult to retain workers when you have them employed?" Fasbinder asked.

"You know it's a really, really difficult job. I would say that individuals investigating abuse and neglect might have the hardest job in state government. Every single day they're going out, they're investigating situations of, could be abuse, could be neglect, could be a family that needs certain services, some really, really tough situations. And you know that can take a toll on people. So one of the things that's really important to me in my role, for example, is taking care of like the secondary trauma that our workers might experience," Howard said.

"Another piece, of course, is at the state level the salaries that we might pay might not be as competitive as what entities might pay for a job for a social worker in the private sector," she added.

Investigator Devon Fasbinder then asked, "What are your efforts at this point to fix this or at least help it?"

Howard said first, she gives credit to Governor Laura Kelly who she says prioritized DCF in her first budget, showing she knows things need to change. Howard said Kelly put dozens of new positions in her first budget though she's aware lawmakers likely won't pass that many.

She also talked about increased efforts in retention.

"We're working really. really closely with our university partners, bringing far more students in as interns while they're pursuing either their bachelor's degree or their master's degree and then really just try to introduce them to the work, really give them a flavor of what that looks like, compliment their education and then try to retain them when they finish that educational piece," she said.

Howard also talked about getting creative with workflow, including adding telecommunication when it's necessary.

Right now, case workers come into the office from wherever they live and then go out to homes to do investigations. Howard said she's looking at having employees use telecommunication for office meetings and other check-ins so caseworkers can drive directly to the homes where they're conducting investigations instead of come to the office first.

"Just being a bit more innovative and creative," Howard said. "I think we need to do more as we go forward into the future."

There's also concern in DCF with supervisor to investigator ratios with child abuse and neglect workers.

Howard said right now, the supervisor to abuse investigator ratio is 1:8 and the ideal is 1:5. She says she also wants to be sure supervisors are doing the right things.

"We have a lot of supervisors who really are working supervisors. They're taking those calls or they're doing those investigations and frankly, I think to support staff best, we really need supervisors who are able to be there for them, doing coaching, doing mentoring, especially with new or young staff, to really kind of help them gain and garner the skills they need to do the job effectively," she said.

Howard said investigating child abuse, she believes, is the most difficult job in state government and she knows these workers need support.

"My goal is that we just be as innovative and creative as we can be to support the workforce in doing what I think is a really complex job," she said.