Review Board: Uncertainty, high turnover in child welfare
December 6th, 2011
Lincoln, NE – In Nebraska’s child welfare system, caseworkers for kids change too often. It’s getting harder to tell if children are safe in the foster homes they’re being placed in. And there are fewer places for them to go. Those are among the conclusions in the latest report by the Foster Care Review Board.
The Foster Care Review Board’s report is the latest in a series of assessments of the state’s controversial child welfare reform. Lincoln Senator Kathy Campbell says it provides statistical confirmation of trends that senators have been hearing about over the last year and a half, and in a series of hearings this fall.
“There is a consistent picture that’s being painted in the state of Nebraska. What is the state of the child welfare system? And frankly, all of the reports show that it is in great difficulty,” Campbell said.
The report released Monday said that as of June 30th, just over half of all children in out-of-home care had had four or more state workers assigned to manage their cases during their time in the system. That’s up from 35 percent in 2008.
In just those areas of the state where reform has turned case management over to private agencies, only 21 percent of children had four or more staff assigned to their cases so far – but that’s still nearly double the figure from the end of last year.
Foster Care Review Board Vice Chair Mario Scalora says having multiple workers is an even bigger problem than lack of documentation or a decline in the number of places that accept children. “Forget the paperwork, forget how many placements are out there. If the people working directly with the kids – the boots on the ground – are shifting too much or have an overwhelming caseload, it is not going to work,” he said.
The report also says there’s nearly a doubling in the percentage of cases where there’s no documentation that the homes children have been placed in are safe or appropriate. In 2008, before child welfare reform was implemented, documentation was lacking in 19 percent of cases. In the first six months of this year, that figure rose to 37 percent.
The trend was similar with home study information, which includes information such as foster families’ drug and alcohol use, and the physical condition of their home. It was missing from 19 percent of files the board reviewed in 2008, but 36 percent this year.
Joan Kinsey, post-adoption coordinator for the Nebraska Foster and Adoptive Parent Association, a support group for families, said documentation is important so that workers who place children with families have good information on the behaviors and characteristics of those children. “You can only relate to families the information you have in front of you. So if whoever’s filling out the documentation or however they’re doing it now is telling you that this child has no behaviors, that’s what you call the family with,” she explained.
Like Kinsey, the group’s executive director, Pamela Allen, is also a foster parent herself. She said since child welfare reform was implemented, there seems to be higher turnover among caseworkers. Allen says she’s personally experienced how that high turnover can lead workers to try and place kids into inappropriate settings. “I for years fostered teenage boys. And my workers knew not to call me for a 16 or 17 year old girl,” she said. After reform, “for a period of time I was getting phone calls for – I’d have teenage boys in my home and I was getting calls for teenage girls and it’s like “are you kidding me?” she said, laughing.
The report also says therapists, group and foster homes, and other people who used to provide service have quit due to delays, cuts or elimination of payments and other issues. And Allen said that while the state has funded the Nebraska Foster and Adoptive Parents Association, the lead agencies it has hired to implement reform in eastern and southeast Nebraska have not. She said that’s a concern. “Everybody who works for our organization is either a foster parent or has adopted children,” she said. “And we walk in the shoes that other foster parents walk in, and other adoptive families. I think what we have to say is very, very important.”
“We are worried about our funding because with the reform, lead agencies are doing things in-house that we traditionally did statewide,” Allen continued. “But we’re not going to go away – funded or not, we’re not going to go away.”
The same goes for other people who are watching and hoping to shape changes in the system. The Health and Human Services Committee, which Campbell chairs, is due to deliver its report on child welfare reform by December 15.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the child welfare system, says the themes in the Foster Care Review Board report are consistent with trends the department has seen. Spokeswoman Kathie Osterman says that’s one reason the department hired an administrator in June to oversee child welfare reform in the areas where the system has been privatized.
Osterman says the report ends at the time administrator Vicki Maca and her team began working, adding “We expect improvement and we’re committed to improving services to children and families.”