- Brian Chilson
- CASEWORKERS OVERWORKED: Consultant Paul Vincent (center) recommended less casework for DCFS caseworkers in July. Here he's flanked by Gov. Asa Hutchinson (left) and DHS director John Selig.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced in July a plan to spend $8 million over the next three years to address the state's child welfare needs by hiring more employees at the state Department of Human Services.
Hutchinson's proposal followed a review of the Department's Division of Children and Family Services by Paul Vincent, director of the nonprofit Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group out of Alabama. The review followed reporting in the Arkansas Times regarding the issue of rehoming — when adoptive parents give away their child to the care of another individual.
Vincent made 11 recommendations, including a reduction in workload on DCFS caseworkers. Vincent found that those workers handle on average 29 cases. The nationally recognized standard is 15.
"That is a strain on the caseworkers, it leads to increased turnover, it leads to bad morale, it leads to bad decisions and bad performance," Hutchinson said at a press conference in July about Vincent's review.
DCFS caseworkers work with children in family homes, group homes, behavioral health care facilities and foster care when allegations of maltreatment — which can range from educational neglect to abuse — have been found to be true. When caseworkers are overburdened, children suffer. In Arkansas, in 63 of the state's 75 counties, DCFS consistently records caseloads above the recommended standard, with Hot Spring County averaging the highest — 79 per worker. Other counties where DCFS caseloads are grossly in excess of the national standard are Cross (68), Dallas (51), Saline (53) and Sevier (55). The figures come from a DCFS quarterly performance report that examines data from Jan. 1, 2015 through March 31, 2015.
"If I applied the kind of cases that we currently have today, and I applied the recommended caseload standards to those," DCFS Director Cecile Blucker said, "I would need a staff of 601 and 391 [purely]case-carrying staff." The 400 or so family service workers on staff now include both caseworkers and investigators. Short staffing "does impact our ability to maybe be better than we could be,"she said. As a result of Vincent's report, DHS is working now to determine what hires will be needed to lessen the workload on individuals; it could be that some of the state dollars will go to administrative staff to help caseworkers with paperwork or that the dollars will go to increasing the caseworker numbers, agency spokesperson Amy Webb said.
DCFS caseworkers both investigate and provide case plans for children the agency has determined need protection. Each case has its own dynamics. For example, it may require the caseworker to spend time in court. If a caseworker has 40 cases, the one in court tends to take priority; the other 39 will be placed on the back burner.
"Foster care and court cases take priority because you have a judge to answer to, and you will be held responsible if something goes wrong or something isn't done," said a former caseworker who left last year after 13 years on the job because of burnout. She spoke on condition of anonymity.
Michelle Harvey is a licensed independent psychological examiner in Benton who was a DCFS caseworker for a little over two years. She "hated" the job.
"I never really got to do quality work, so much as quantity. I was just going through a checklist of minimum requirements, like the case plan. I had an average between 30 and 34, constantly. Occasionally it may drop down to 28, maybe, then it was right back up."
"The harsh reality of it is, when you start to get overworked, where do you cut short? You stop looking into cases that on the surface may look stable," because you know you have others coming in, Harvey said. "It's a pattern you quickly get into, and it becomes not what I want or need to do, but what I have to do just to meet my bottom-line goals."
Harvey gave an example of a worker taking a shortcut:
"I was secondary on a case out of Pulaski County one time; the kid was a college kid. I read in the file that there were two kids. I went to see the kid and asked him where his younger brother was, and the kid just gave me a shocked look. It turns out his brother died a few years before from drowning." But the primary caseworker's records indicated the caseworker had made regular contact and visitation with the younger brother.
Some of the 10 areas of the state into which DCFS divides its work do reach the recommended caseloads every once in a while, but even then such numbers may mask the extent of the problem.
A supervisor of one such area, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, "Every once in a while we do get our caseload down to where it is supposed to be, 12 or 15. But it is still hard. You may have 12 to 15 cases, but you have 40 kids [among them]. Our cases are lower than they have been right now, around 21 to 23, and supervisors and caseworkers in other parts of the area are upset because they think ours are so low. What they don't realize is we have cases ... that have five kids under one case."
In addition to diminishing the quality of child welfare work, high caseloads also contribute to high turnover among staff. "I didn't want anything like a child death on my watch, because you have so much [work] you can't keep up," said Danielle Henry, a DCFS caseworker for nine years and five months in Faulkner County. She quit in 2011. "I felt like I was being set up for failure," Henry said.
The duties of caseworkers are many. They may need to transport children to counties away from their homes for medical appointments, counseling and visitation with family members, while having 30 other cases to look after. Often caseworkers spend hours in court waiting for one case to be called for review. At the hearing, a judge might order the caseworker to provide a service that day to a family that the caseworker did not have on her schedule, requiring her to rearrange her day.
Weekly to monthly unannounced home visits are required in every case, and every child must be seen outside the presence of his or her caretaker. Regular case plans are periodically evaluated and updated by caseworkers; every contact made on every case in the DCFS reporting system must be documented. A case plan objective could require a parent in a case to submit and pass a regular drug test that the worker would have to administer.
Caseworkers also must take on-call duties, meaning they could be called to work in the middle of the night and on weekends. When a county does not have enough investigators, investigations are often assigned to caseworkers. A caseworker who did not want her name used said that in addition to her regular caseload, she often had to travel several counties away to work cases in a county that was short on staff.
If a busy caseworker isn't on top of every case, neglect could occur that would put more children in the foster care system. Already, Arkansas far exceeds the national standard.
"We remove about 5.3 children per thousand compared to the national standard of three," Blucker said. "So we know we have been running that way."
As of April, Arkansas had 4,242 children in foster care.
Webb, the DCFS spokesperson, said the agency brings kids into foster care for a broad variety of reasons characterized as maltreatment. One of the reasons is drug use by parents.
Webb said some courts will remove children from homes in which drugs are used "regardless of the impact to the parents' ability to keep their children safe."
Because of that, Webb said, caseworkers, fearing reprimand, may act based on their anticipation of judicial decisions that a child should be removed from a home rather than their own decision-making.
A former lawyer for DCFS who asked not to be identified believes the state "is taking too many kids" from their homes.
To reduce the number of kids going into foster care, DCFS established a "differential response unit" to work with families whose problems have the potential of creating abuse or neglect. DCFS offers these families services and referrals to resources as a preventative measure, rather than taking punitive steps such as removing children from the home.
Even with the addition of the differential response unit, foster care numbers continue to increase.
Hutchinson's goal is to reduce field worker caseloads over a three-year period to 20 — a number still higher than the national standard of 15, but a significant improvement over where we are today. Vincent's review also referred to the state's high number of child fatalities on a per-capita basis, the need for more foster homes and DCFS' low placement of children in the homes of relatives compared to neighboring states.
Vincent's report also recommended that the state spend more money on its mental/behavioral health services. However, the governor said the state would turn to its "faith-based partners" to help address the "challenge of placement of those in need of protective services and foster care" and would seek other "private partners" to "make sure our children are not spending the night in a DHS office."
Funding for this reporting was provided by people who donated to a crowdfunding campaign on ioby.com and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.