In a single week in June, caseworkers from the Department of Children and Family Services’ Baton Rouge field office answered a dizzying array of calls.
Two mothers were killed, leaving uncertain futures for their children. An infant accidentally forgotten in the back seat of a car died from the intense summer heat. Workers placed nine children into foster care, investigated a child trafficking case and started investigations into eight newborns exposed to illegal drugs.
Six child protection investigators were available to check on those cases. Earlier in the year, the Baton Rouge office had even fewer caseworkers — just two or three — available to handle the incoming reports of abuse or neglect.
“This one office has case after case after case and incident after incident,” said Rhenda Hodnett, the department’s assistant secretary for child welfare. “We’ve poured every resource we can try to pull in new people.”
There have been a number of new hires in the office, cutting caseworker vacancies from 11 in April to four open positions, said Linda Carter, the administrator for the department’s Baton Rouge region. But those new employees are restricted from handling many cases during their training.
Though some of those cases garnered public attention — not necessarily the norm on a given week — the workload wasn’t particularly unusual, Hodnett said. Increasingly in recent years, neither are the staffing levels.
Average caseloads for child welfare workers in Louisiana have inched up over the past decade, as budget cuts and attrition have thinned the ranks at the agency. But the averages, already at or above nationally accepted standards, don’t paint a full picture of just how thinly stretched the agency really is: High turnover at the department means a large proportion of the staff is new hires, who work a strictly limited number of cases during their first six months on the job.
That leaves established workers to handle caseloads higher than the department’s average. And the new recruits are quitting at astounding rates, making it difficult for the agency to dig out of the hole. In 2015, just over 55 percent of trainees left, according to figures provided by the Louisiana Department of State Civil Service. In 2010, about 30 percent left the agency.
“What I call a seasoned worker today is somebody who’s been here a year,” said Carter, who’s worked in Louisiana’s child welfare system since 1991. Fifteen years ago, Carter said, she would have considered a child welfare worker seasoned after a decade in the field.
Child welfare experts and agency officials said rising turnover rates, which have doubled for frontline workers statewide since 2010, are amplifying an already dangerous burden on caseworkers.
High turnover is common among child welfare agencies across the U.S., but the steady climb of percentages over the past five years in Louisiana — a quarter of all caseworkers left in 2015 — has raised alarms. In some Louisiana offices, the problem is even worse: In 2013, 44 percent of the 70 child welfare field workers in the Baton Rouge region left the department, a rate that has come down since but is still well above the state average. Rates in New Orleans also are higher: That same year, 38 percent of the 113 frontline workers there left.
“We’ve lost a lot of really, really good people,” said department Secretary Marketa Garner Walters, who was appointed by Gov. John Bel Edwards to run the agency earlier this year.
During Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, the state’s child welfare agency — like other agencies — was hit by significant budget cuts and saw its number of caseworkers reduced by 16 percent, beginning after a 2010 reorganization of the agency. The child welfare division saw its budget shrink from $297 million in the 2007-2008 fiscal year to $240 million in the fiscal year that ended last year. The entire agency is facing another slight budget cut of about 3 percent in the upcoming fiscal year, though the child welfare division is expected to be largely shielded from further cutbacks.
Department of Children and Family Services officials and a number of child welfare advocates say the cuts have significantly damaged the agency and sapped staff morale, leaving a dwindling number of caseworkers and far less support from supervisors, even as the number of abuse investigations and children in foster care rose.
Child welfare workers typically specialize in different kinds of cases, checking on children in foster care; those living with their families but with open cases; and new cases of children reported as possibly having been abused or neglected. In each category, department data show that a large portion of cases are assigned to workers with caseloads higher than recommended levels.
For example, about 82 percent of new child protection cases in 2015 were handled by workers with caseloads that top the recommended cap of 10 new cases per month. The average caseload for those workers was about 15 new cases.
“The child welfare system is in terrible shape, and we’re failing kids,” said Baton Rouge Juvenile Court Judge Adam Haney, a Republican former prosecutor, pointing to years of cuts under Jindal. “The state as a whole has neglected child welfare for several years — you just need to look at our budget priorities to see how this state feels about child welfare.”
An independent report on the agency that it commissioned during the Jindal administration pointed to some troubling outcome trends for children in the past two years as “early warnings” that cracks may be opening in the state’s child welfare system.
While praising the agency’s continued performance in several areas, the report by the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, an Alabama-based nonprofit consultant group, wrote that budget cuts increase the risks, “significantly affecting child and family outcomes.”
Meanwhile, the number of other resources available to caseworkers also dwindled over the past eight years. Attrition and cutbacks ate away at the number of clerical staff and transportation workers available to help file reports and shuttle foster kids to school and appointments, down 47 percent since 2008. And as Walters pointed out to the state Senate Finance Committee in May, the department’s fleet of vehicles is rapidly aging: Almost all have more than 100,000 miles on them, and nearly a third have more than 200,000.
Timmy Teepell, a political consultant who served as Jindal’s chief of staff during his first term, defended the Jindal administration’s record at the agency.
Teepell said the 2010 reorganization was about “reducing middle management” and that the agency’s performance improved based on a number of statistical measures. Between 2008 and 2015, department caseworkers significantly improved the rates at which they closed child abuse investigations, visited victims and met with families in a timely manner, Teepell said. The recent child welfare report, for example, found that the closed investigations jumped from 46 percent in 2008 to 67 percent in 2015.
Perhaps the explanation for the increase in employee turnover rates was because the Jindal administration demanded greater accountability on the part of department workers, he said.
“There are folks who are going to leave — it happens. Hopefully the good ones stay and the ones who would rather be somewhere else or aren’t particularly good leave,” Teepell said. “All the metrics that really get at the well-being of Louisiana’s children — those went up; those metrics improved.”
But Walters, the head of the agency, said the push to improve metrics also stretched caseworkers thin. Swamped child welfare workers lack time to dig deeper into abuse allegations or to check in with grandparents, neighbors and schoolteachers, she said.
That heightens risks that something might go unnoticed, Walters said.
Edwards’ transition committee report on the department criticized the previous administration for placing too much weight “on numbers and false metrics,” something the report’s authors argued came at the expense of child safety.
The February arrest of Kimberly Deann Lee, a former department caseworker in the Ruston area who was accused of faking reports, highlighted some of the strains on workers and pointed to possible cracks in the state’s ability to investigate and handle cases of child abuse and neglect, Stephen Dixon, an attorney with the advocacy group Children’s Rights, and other child experts said.
To explain why she dodged her required visits with foster children and created fake document…
In an interview with state investigators, Lee said she was under intense pressure “to get things done no matter what” despite a heavy workload, adding that supervisors pushed her to use “buzzwords” in the reports.
Walters said falsifying reports was a dangerous shortcut that left kids at risk and said it’s not a prevalent practice in the department. But the secretary also expressed some sympathy for Lee, saying the intense stresses of the job have been exacerbated by cuts.
“I understand the pressure workers are under,” Walters said. “It doesn’t make it right; it doesn’t mean I approve of it. But I do understand it.”
For children whose lives already are marked by instability and uncertainty — separated from parents and placed into foster homes or institutions — a revolving door of caseworkers also undermines efforts to build trust and may cause additional trauma. A recent independent review of the agency noted that a fifth of frontline caseworkers have less than a year of experience and a third have two years or less.
“That kind of instability hurts kids,” Dixon said. “It makes it so they don’t have trusting relationships with their workers. These kids have been through some sort of traumatic event — we have to stop the bleeding, stop piling up trauma events. If we’re adding worker instability to that, we’re not. We’re maybe adding to it.”
Staff turnover was at least partly to blame for the eight foster children since September who have spent nights sleeping in the department’s offices after workers couldn’t find a placement in time, Walters said. The secretary said her staff couldn’t remember such an instance before last year.
A decade ago, “people in the office would’ve known their caseload, and they would know their foster parents. Someone would’ve said, ‘Oh, the Thompsons will take them,’ ” Walters said. “They don’t know their caseloads (now), and they haven’t had time to build the relationship with their foster parents or providers.”
Haney, the Juvenile Court judge, said he’s seen children in his courtroom assigned multiple caseworkers over short periods of time.
“As a judge, it makes it difficult for me,” said Haney, who also is a foster parent. Caseworkers in court are “just reading the file. They weren’t involved in what’s happened, so they can’t tell me what’s really going on with these kids. Once you have a lot of turnover, nothing in the system works. It all relies on trust.”
A constant exodus of workers and an inability to retain recruits comes with a hefty financial cost. The state Civil Service Department estimated the cost of turnover at the child welfare agency during the 2015 fiscal year at $11.5 million — at least $3 million of that in replacing frontline child welfare workers.
“You get these folks to where they’re trained and can function in their job, then they walk out the door,” said Carter, the Baton Rouge administrator. “You lose the knowledge, and we’re losing the money. You’re just constantly reinvesting, both dollars and teaching.”