Editor’s note: Kansas privatized its foster care system in 1997, after a lawsuit revealed widespread problems. Twenty years later, the number of Kansas children in foster care has shot up — by a third in just the last five years — and lawmakers are debating whether the system once again needs serious changes. The Kansas News Service investigated problems in the system and possible solutions. This is the second story in a series.
Turnover among caseworkers has delayed children’s movement through the Kansas foster care system, contributing to record numbers of kids living away from their families.
While each case is different, foster care workers serve as a vital part of the system and often deal with parents and children during stressful times. They work with families on their case plans, which outline what they need to do to satisfy the court and get their children back; check on children to make sure their foster home placement is working out, and help arrange adoptive placement if a child can’t return home.
Keeping up with caseloads is a challenge under normal circumstances, let alone at a time when the number of children in the foster care system is breaking records and state lawmakers plan to increase scrutiny of the system.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families, which oversees the system, and its two foster care contractors say they have increased salaries and offered more training to recruit and retain caseworkers. Under Kansas’ privatized system, DCF investigates potential abuse and neglect, while KVC Health Systems and Saint Francis Community Services attempt to return children to their families or find adoptive homes.
Turnover among caseworkers is a big problem, said Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat. She said some residents of her district reported working with three or more caseworkers during a child in need of care case, which can slow the process of getting their children back.
“Over the years I’ve heard from constituents who are close to reintegration, and they get a new caseworker and it starts all over again,” she said.
Kendall McVay, who practices family law in Shawnee County, said his clients experienced similar challenges. KVC is the foster care contractor for Shawnee County, while Saint Francis has the contract in Faust-Goudeau’s district.
“The system is not able to help these families, mainly because the social workers aren’t able to do their jobs,” he said. “It wouldn’t be strange to have three different case workers in a year on one case.”
A 2016 Legislative Post Audit report, which legislators ordered to evaluate the foster care system’s safety, said caseworkers reported that turnover was a problem, along with heavy caseloads and poor morale.
KVC estimated it has an annual caseworker turnover rate of 25 percent to 30 percent, and Saint Francis put its turnover rate at 27 percent. Representatives for both foster care contractors said each case has at least two workers, to minimize disruption if one leaves.
Turnover among foster care caseworkers isn’t only a problem in Kansas. Nationwide estimates range from about 20 percent to 40 percent.
Deneen Dryden, director of prevention and protection services at DCF, said social workers who have gained some experience in the child welfare system often move on to other jobs.
“We don’t always get the ones we want. We get the ones coming in when they’re eager to learn,” she said.
At a July 2016 legislative hearing after the audit was released, DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore blamed scrutiny of the foster care system for some of the caseworkers’ unhappiness.
“Our workers’ morale is low because they don’t have support from the public. They face heavy caseloads and never-ending scrutiny, but they keep coming back because they know, as I know, their work is important,” said Gilmore, a former social worker and legislator.
Caseloads Vary By Region
Sarah Coats, a social worker previously employed by KVC, said the bigger problem is unmanageable workloads. She was fired in December for what she said was union organizing. KVC didn’t comment on her allegations.
Her caseload was supposed to include only eight high-risk families, Coats said, but it sometimes had three times that many. Other social workers sometimes were assigned as many as 45 cases and had to balance those with emergencies while on-call, she said.
“Imagine how behind you get,” she said.
Another Legislative Post Audit report, released in April, found social workers who work for the two contractors generally had on average fewer than 30 cases, which is DCF’s recommended cutoff. Social workers do tasks in the child welfare system that require a license, such writing court reports.
It wasn’t unusual for some social workers to report hitting substantially higher levels than DCF recommended, however. For most of 2015 and early 2016, one or more social workers in KVC’s east region had 50 or more cases at some point, and some topped 60. KVC officials said they weren’t sure why some workers had such high caseloads.
The other three regions also had periods when caseloads spiked, though the problem wasn’t as long-lived. The report attributed the spikes to periods when social workers took on heavier loads after their colleagues quit.
The report didn’t assess family support workers’ caseloads, because DCF didn’t have a recommended limit. Family support workers conduct home visits but only need a high school education and two years of experience working with children.
Sky Westerlund, executive director of the Kansas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said the profession doesn’t have a recommended maximum number of cases per worker. It depends on the complexity of each family’s issues, the number of children involved and the status of the case, she said.
Ultimately, it depends on how many cases the worker can manage while still providing accurate and timely information.
“Caseloads are not a number. They are based on circumstances,” she said. “You cannot cut corners. If you cut corners, you’re not going to have an accurate report to the judge who makes the decisions.”
Caseworker Salaries An Issue
Judge Dan Cahill, of Wyandotte County District Court, told members of the House Children and Seniors Committee earlier this year that long hours and relatively low salaries are some of the biggest factors in turnover among caseworkers. The only way to solve that is by hiring more workers and paying them enough so they stay, he said.
“When a kid goes into crisis, it rarely happens between 9 and 5,” he said.
Some family support workers she knew earned as little as $27,000, said Coats, the former KVC employee.
“I had co-workers who were on (public) assistance,” she said.
Kansas lawmakers are working on a bill that would create a task force to study the foster care system and recommend improvements, including ways to reduce turnover among caseworkers. A conference committee is attempting to negotiate a final version of the measure.
State contracts don’t require KVC and Saint Francis to pay a specific wage. KVC recently increased its annual pay for starting social workers to about $40,000, with additional money available for workers who are bilingual or work in multiple counties.
KVC also offered signing bonuses and assistance with fees during a hiring push in the fall, spokeswoman Jenny Kutz said. The extra pay helped bring in about 100 employees over three months, she said.
“We’ve taken significant steps to increase staff recruitment, satisfaction and retention,” she said in an email.
Vickee Spicer, director of marketing for Saint Francis, said the organization raised its hourly median pay for social workers from $18.53 to about $20. She said she wasn’t sure how much an average worker took home once overtime pay was included.
DCF also recently increased its annual starting salaries for social workers about 5 percent, to $44,000 for those who are in a supervisory role and $40,000 for those who aren’t, Dryden said.
The department is considering other ideas to attract employees, such as tuition assistance for social work majors, Gilmore said.
“We’re going to have some sort of incentives both for education and retention,” she said.
The nature of the work adds to the challenge of keeping employees.
Jean Schmidt, a retired Shawnee County district court judge, said young and inexperienced caseworkers may not be prepared for some of the situations they encounter. New social workers sometimes don’t stay on the job long enough to learn and don’t have many experienced colleagues to consult, she said.
“There was a huge difference between social workers I dealt with in the ’80s and ones now,” she said.
DCF and the two foster care contractors said they have revamped their training to better prepare caseworkers for what they may encounter in homes.
DCF introduced new modules and a simulation room where new caseworkers can practice. During a demonstration in February, an actress portraying a frazzled grandmother of a crying newborn talked to a DCF investigator about her family’s troubles in a room strewn with fake cockroaches and rubber animal feces.
Improvements to staff training also are important for Saint Francis, so employees won’t be shocked when they go into the field, Spicer said.
“We want people to come in and have a good experience when they start because that creates that longevity,” she said.
It isn’t clear if efforts to retain caseworkers have translated into more stability yet, however.
Mickey Edwards is state director of Kansas Court Appointed Special Advocates, which represent a child’s interests in child welfare cases. She said the caseworker turnover rate may have fallen recently, but not far enough. Many children still have multiple caseworkers and have to deal with the delays caused by turnover, she said.
“If it improves from four caseworkers to three caseworkers a year, I’m not sure we’re going to notice,” she said.
Meg Wingerter is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @MegWingerter.