Once heralded as a model for Missouri, the Jackson County Childrens Division has spiraled into such dysfunction that many insist the agency has lost sight of its mission standing up for the countys most vulnerable children.
By JUDY L. THOMAS and LAURA BAUER
The Kansas City Star
In the past two years, veteran workers with 10, 20, even 30 years of experience have left the office at an alarming rate. New hires have shown up in family court with little knowledge of their assigned cases, attorneys and former workers say. Others dont even know when the hearings are.
And too often, foster children are shuffled from caseworker to caseworker, eroding what little stability exists in their lives.
Jimel Hogan, a Jackson County foster mom since 2006, said one of her foster daughters recently had eight caseworkers in eight months.
How do you learn to trust people who are supposed to be there for you when theyre not there for you? said Hogan, who has watched the system deteriorate in recent years. Were giving them so much loss in their life when theyve already experienced so much loss.
A six-month investigation by The Kansas City Star, based on agency records and other public documents and reinforced by interviews with current and past workers, reveals an office drained of more than 1,000 years of experience and knowledge in the past two years.
Those losses, coupled with what workers describe as a sharper focus on meeting rigid policy guidelines, have undercut much of the success achieved while the county spent three decades under court order to improve the lives of foster children.
The turmoil inside the Jackson County office comes as Missouris child welfare system is seeking renewal of its accreditation, an honor the state spent millions to achieve four years ago. A national team of professional reviewers is scheduled to be in Kansas City early next month.
Among The Stars findings:
• More than 180 employees in the Jackson County Childrens Division including supervisors, front-line investigators and program managers have quit or been forced out since a new director took over in October 2011. Although social service agencies often see turnover, experts say the rate in the Jackson County office, and the departure of so many longtime workers, is anything but ordinary.
• Most of the childrens service workers in the Jackson County office have less than two years of service, according to a review this summer obtained by The Star. Thats a revelation that experts and advocates say is appalling in a system where it can take two years just to fully understand the job.
• The caseloads of many child welfare workers in the county exceed the standard set by the Council on Accreditation, the national accrediting body for child and family agencies. When case files stack up, workers cant spend as much time rooting out abuse or other problems inside a troubled family.
• Current and former investigators say Childrens Division leaders have cracked down on a 30-day deadline to close cases. Although the deadline is mandated by state law, Department of Social Services annual reports show that local offices across the state regularly fail to meet it. And investigators insist 30 days is not always enough time to complete the work when a childs safety is at stake. Workers say they have felt pressure to cut corners and rush cases to improve their statistics.
The upheaval in the Jackson County Childrens Division has escalated so much in recent months that local lawmakers initiated meetings with DSS leaders. In response, state officials sent in a three-member organizational review team.
This has gotten to an alarming level, said Sen. Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat who, as an attorney, often represents parents whose children have been removed from their care. These kids have absolutely no stability in their cases. Something is broken in Jackson County.
Brian Kinkade, the acting director of DSS, said the county operations arent broken, but in transition. He defended the state and county Childrens Division directors during an interview in July. The two state director Candace Shively and Jackson County regional director Tanya Keys previously worked in management roles for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
The issues, we arent unaware of them, Kinkade said. The key is to know that Candy (Shively) and her team are tuned in. They know that they have the support at the top to do what they need to do to ameliorate that situation as quickly as possible. Thats our goal.
Yet a little more than a week ago, Kinkade announced that Shively would retire at the end of this month. A search has begun for her replacement.
Those who work in the system say that if officials are trying to improve the local office, concentrating on case statistics and investigation deadlines is the wrong approach.
I resigned from my position with the agency when I could no longer compromise my own integrity, said Marni Scott, who left the Childrens Division office in December after 17 years.
This administration appears to be attempting to apply a business model to a human services agency.
The week before Christmas in 2011, Tim Feiertag wrote a resignation letter to Jackson County Childrens Division managers.
I can no longer in good conscience remain a part of the toxic, abusive system that this agency has devolved into, wrote Feiertag, who spent 12 years off and on with the agency, some as a front-line supervisor.
Im no longer willing to accept the personal blame for not meeting the needs of my clients to the degree that they deserve.
He wasnt alone. Resignations piled up after Keys took over the Jackson County office in October 2011.
Through August, 184 workers had left, according to records DSS provided The Star. Thats for an office with 246 current staff members.
Although 61 workers who left did so during their one-year probationary period, many had decades of experience: Twenty-nine had 10 to 20 years on the job, and 10 had more than 20 years of experience.
According to DSS, Jackson County had a turnover rate of 46 percent in fiscal year 2013, which ended June 30. That was nearly double the statewide average of 24 percent. St. Louis citys rate was 28 percent, and St. Louis Countys was 14 percent.
Working for a social services agency is a tough job, with immense pressure. Workers confront long hours and often gruesome cases, from child sex abuse to severe neglect. All that can become too much.
Thats why, experts say, many child welfare agencies churn through workers.
We do see a lot of young people go into child welfare work and feel like theyre going to work with kids and do really nice things, and the gritty nature of things gets to them, said Michael Kelly, professor of the University of Missouri School of Social Work. Turnovers high in the first two years.
Another reason for poor retention is that established workers who have a few years on their resume realize they could make more money elsewhere, he said.
But what Jackson County has experienced in the past two years isnt typical.
There have always been cycles, said Kathy Rodgers, director of the local Guardian Ad Litem Office, which represents children legally in family court. But I dont know that theres ever been a time its been this bad.
DSS spokeswoman Rebecca Woelfel, responding on Keys behalf, said Friday in an email that expectations for professional behavior had been elevated in the Jackson County office.
Not everyone has accepted these changes, and those individuals have moved on, Woelfel said.
Seven program managers, administrators who ran various divisions, have departed since Keys became director, in some cases replaced by supervisors with a fraction of their knowledge and training.
The turnover is absolutely a concern, said Rep. Rory Ellinger, a University City Democrat and member of the Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect. You look at the critical services that these people deliver the protection of children who are at risk and you have this much turnover, and you expect to do a good job with that child?
That sounds like a crisis that the state, the governor and leaders of the legislature ought to address. We cant run a state agency like this.
When so many senior staffers leave, something is wrong, said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Childrens Rights, a national advocacy group.
Thats a sign that there are really serious problems in how services are being provided or not provided, Lowry said. You cant run a good child welfare system that protects children in the absence of a stable workforce.
Indeed, the organizational review team found that the No. 1 concern was the loss of staff.
Every manager, supervisor and specialist expressed that turnover is at the heart of issues they are dealing with on a daily basis, the review team wrote. And it is severely hampering efforts to achieve outcomes.
Too often, children see a different social worker each month. That means getting into a car with someone they dont know, over and over again.
It goes against everything you would do with your biological children, said a woman who has three foster children and has adopted three others. And when you start handing kids off to a stranger, its kind of the same concept of why we dont put their belongings in trash bags. You are telling a child that they dont matter enough.
In recent months, one employee with nearly two decades of experience walked away from the Jackson County office. Another, with 15 years, thought shed never leave until it was time to collect her pension.
One former worker, who didnt want to be named because she still works in child welfare, said it became a battle of her personal ethics.
I was meant to do social work for a reason, she said. That was my calling. But I couldnt turn away families and do the wrong thing to families.
A worker still employed in the Jackson County office said leaders constantly focus on statistics.
Everything is about the numbers, and they force the numbers, said that worker, who asked not to be named for fear of being fired. A lot of people have left because they feel they cant be part of an agency that cant put children first.
The most devastating part of the office turnover, workers and community advocates say, is the wealth of knowledge and experience that followed veteran employees out the door.
The organizational review team that visited the office this summer first came to the Jackson County Childrens Division two years ago. At that time, 37 percent of the childrens service workers had less than two years of service.
Earlier this summer, that number had climbed to 56 percent.
When asked whether that lack of experience was a concern, Woelfel said: What matters is the performance of the staff.
We are monitoring performance measures of our Jackson County office. That is our primary tool for assessing the overall impact of all factors which might affect performance.
Advocates, workers and experts, however, say the lack of experience for more than half the staff is unacceptable for an agency dealing with troubled families and accusations of child abuse. Its not that the new employees dont care or arent motivated, but their lack of on-the-job training means theyre often ill-equipped to handle the work.
For just a normal job, it takes a year to learn to do your job, said Joy Oesterly, executive director of Missouri KidsFirst, a statewide advocacy group. But in a job investigating abuse, where life hangs in the balance, how can you possibly learn to do that in a year or two?
The system is not only failing kids, its failing staff as well, she said.
Inexperienced workers often dont know what services already have been provided to parents or how far the parents have progressed, said Sister Berta Sailer, a child advocate who co-founded Operation Breakthrough, an early childhood education center.
If I was put on a plane to China and told to go start a child care center, I wouldnt know what to do, Sailer said. Id go over there, wouldnt know the language, wouldnt know the culture.
We expect these new workers to understand these families, know this system. And they dont.
Lori Ross, president and CEO of Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association, said theres good and bad that comes with the substantial turnover that Jackson County has experienced. The positive, she said, is that some who left took with them entrenched bad practices that needed to go.
But any institutional knowledge of how to resolve problems and how to avoid pitfalls and how to accomplish what needs to be accomplished for families and children also left with people, she said.
Those experienced workers had helped the Jackson County office reach a high point just seven years ago.
A consent decree that loomed over the county from 1977 to 2006 aimed to improve the lives of children in foster care by limiting employee caseloads and providing more oversight. Along with the oversight came resources.
People around the state were jealous of Jackson County, said Scott, the former worker.
We kind of became a model of excellence.
But attorneys, community partners and front-line workers still worried that once the decree was settled, the progress would erode.
Jennifer Washam, a former investigator in the Childrens Division office who left in March after about 15 years, didnt want the oversight to go away.
I think it did provide a level of accountability and a standard of how we should be doing things, she said.
Lori Burns-Bucklew, an attorney who represented the countys children in the consent decree case, said she thought the Jackson County office had improved significantly.
Thats why it has been so horrifying to me the last two years, she said. It just went backwards.
The reversal has been playing out in family court.
In recent months, some workers have arrived for hearings without even knowing the names of the children whose cases they were handling. Others have routinely turned in paperwork late and missed important deadlines.
You get into court, go in front of the judge and hed say, Where are the kids? and the worker would say, I dont know. I just got the case yesterday, Justus said. She and Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, a fellow Kansas City Democrat, met with DSS officials about their concerns.
Several times you hear the judge saying, Wheres the report? Justus said. And the worker says, Im sorry, judge, I just got the case yesterday.
Woelfel said Shively and Keys had taken steps to help workers become more effective in court, including holding mock court presentations and providing legal training and coaching.
New workers in Jackson County used to start out with a handful of cases and have a mentor they could shadow.
Thats not happening anymore, workers say.
Feiertag returned in March 2011 to become a childrens service worker. Because he had been away more than five years he previously worked as a supervisor in other units he had to take basic training.
A month before he had completed that training, he already had a caseload of 22 children above the national accreditation standard of 18.
The only answer that administration could give was to work harder, he said. To me, it was a juggling act. What can I put off? What can I not do right now? So as I continued working, the things that I was having to put off became bigger and bigger.
Accurate caseload statistics are difficult to come by, changing constantly as kids move in and out of the system. According to a chart DSS provided for 2012-2013, many workers who handle children living under state supervision often had caseloads in the upper 20s and low to mid 30s.
Former workers who spoke to The Star said employees caseloads regularly exceeded limits even as they were forced to take on additional duties. (Indeed, high caseloads are one of the reasons that workers leave, according to exit interviews in a Jackson County report provided by DSS.)
Yet thats not the picture the agency paints.
At a June meeting of a legislative subcommittee, Melody Yancey, who at the end of this month will become acting director of the state Childrens Division, told lawmakers that the legislature had been very generous in allowing the department to have sufficient staff to meet caseload standards.
We are within those caseload standards that meet accreditation standards, Yancey said, according to minutes of the meeting. We allocate our staff where there is a growth and a need, so that includes front-line workers and supervision staff, and we do that periodically so that we can maintain that caseload growth.
Current and former workers disagree that caseloads are within standards. Too many workers, they say, are trying to provide services for more than 25 children a month.
You cannot possibly do good casework when you have that many kids, said Sharon Becker, a former program manager for Jackson County. So everything is being compromised, from the services being offered to the families to being able to spend enough time with the kids to really see if theres progress.
Woelfel acknowledged that some workers have carried higher-than-normal caseloads. She said the Jackson County office was shifting staff and enlisting help from clerks, private contractors and employees in other regional offices.
Also, she said, it is important to note that caseload numbers can be skewed by large sibling groups, which are assigned to one single worker and not split among different workers.
One foster mom said she has seen how potentially dangerous high caseloads can be.
A caseworker was supposed to make monthly visits to a child in her care, she said. But because the caseworkers load was high, she didnt visit the foster moms home for five months in a row.
She would email, Hey, whats going on? Anything going on? the foster mom said. Had we been doing something wrong, no one would have known for five months. There are good and bad foster parents. The majority of us are good, but a few arent. Thats why monthly checks are needed.
Keys hadnt been in Jackson County long when she focused on making sure child abuse and neglect investigations were completed within 30 days, former workers said.
Missouri law sets that mandate, but its one that every division office in the state has consistently failed to meet. Some counties didnt make the deadline on just a handful of investigations; others missed it in a majority of their cases, according to DSS annual reports.
We had to get the overdues to 10 or under, then it went to five, Washam said. Then the unspoken rule was it was supposed to be to two. Now its that or none.
Yet it can be impossible to do that, some workers said, without compromising the quality of the investigation or, in some cases, a childs safety or stability.
During her time at the division, Washam said, it was common for investigators to have 15 to 30 investigations at one time. Besides those cases, investigators were given other work, such as assessments and alpha reports calls that didnt constitute abuse or neglect but still needed to be checked out and that sometimes resulted in preventive services.
Washam, who left the office earlier this year, said she would never compromise the integrity of a case or the safety of a child just to meet a deadline.
There was absolutely no measure of quality of the caseload, she said. That wasnt factored in. It was strictly, How many cases did I complete?
The DSS spokeswoman said the department has an obligation under the law to complete investigations within 30 days.
While we conduct an investigation, a family is in limbo, and the childs safety can be at stake, Woelfel said. It is incumbent upon the department to conclude those investigations in a timely manner.
But she acknowledged that some cases may need more than a month.
When legitimate reason exists, workers can take additional time to complete their investigation and conclude the case, Woelfel said.
In past years, the investigations unit was a place for veteran workers, employees who had been on the front line for a while and knew the nuances of families and how to interact with them and quickly assess what was going on.
When I first started there, getting into an investigative position was almost viewed as a promotion, said Scott, the former worker. You had a ton of experience surrounding you all the time and lots of different people to go to, to get help.
The Star asked DSS officials for the experience levels of investigators in the Jackson County office. The information they provided, however, was unclear on whether the most recent hires had previously worked on investigations or had been on the front line of child welfare for any extended period.
The document indicates that as of Aug. 23, 16 of 57 Jackson County investigators were classified as entry level having less than one year with the division.
Woelfel did not respond to a question about the experience of new investigators.
Experts and former workers say that having entry-level workers assigned to the investigations unit is not acceptable.
You have to have your skill and experience and all of that at the front end to make these critical decisions, Scott said.
I feel sorry for the (new) staff because I think people go into it wanting to do a good job, but theyre set up to fail because theyre not really prepared for the enormity of the job.
About this story
In the months after a 10-year-old malnourished girl was rescued from a locked closet in June 2012, The Star began looking at Jackson Countys child welfare system. After fighting the state to obtain records on the girl known as LP, the newspaper eventually revealed that the system, the school district and the family court had failed her.
Reporters also learned something else. In the words of one community advocate: The local Childrens Division is imploding as we speak. A group of former workers contacted The Star and said LP was just one part of the story.
The Star interviewed more than a dozen current and former workers, several of whom would speak only if their names were not used because they feared reprisals and either work in the Childrens Division office or are still in social services. All described an oppressive environment with immense pressures on the quantity of cases and other duties handled, not the quality of the work.