For years, it was the position that employees aspired to attain in the Jackson County Children’s Division.
The seven-member adoption specialist unit was a select team of veteran workers whose mission was to help children find a permanent home. It was one of the few opportunities that represented a career ladder within the local office.
“It was considered the elite unit in Jackson County,” said Michael Kelly, a University of Missouri professor who has studied the Missouri child welfare system for more than three decades. “It was rewarding. You were rebuilding families.”
But that ladder has been yanked away, mainly to reduce caseloads for other workers, former employees say.
The Jackson County office dissolved the adoption team last year, then parceled out foster care cases to the former specialists in an attempt to ease the caseload — and improve the statistics — of other employees. The adoption cases, meanwhile, were divvied up among the foster care workers, creating more duties and responsibilities for them.
“Some of them have caseloads in the 40s, and they have no idea how to do this job,” said Sharon Becker, a former program manager who resigned in April after 15 years. “It’s just ludicrous.”
It’s a two-edged sword, she said. The quality of adoption services is now jeopardized, and the former specialists must take on duties they aren’t familiar with. Same goes for the front-line workers who are now counting adoption cases among their responsibilities.
In an emailed response Friday, a department spokeswoman said they stood behind regional director Tanya Keys’ decision to eliminate the specialty unit.
“Every manager must make decisions about how to best use available resources to accomplish their objectives,” spokeswoman Rebecca Woelfel said. “In the case of the adoption specialist unit, many of the functions were duplicative of what foster care case managers are expected to do.”
She said Jackson County, in its most recent reporting year, had finalized 222 adoptions, more than in any of the previous five years.
Still, the loss of the unit hurts children and families, attorneys and advocates said.
Adoption specialists “knew the questions to ask,” said Jill Katz, a Kansas City attorney who has worked child welfare and adoption cases since 1990. “They also knew the value of contacting birth parents … knew how to get parents an attorney if they needed one. Anytime there’s a specialized position, it’s going to be better.”
The workers now carrying adoption cases “don’t know how to do the process, and there’s nobody to teach them the process,” Katz said. “They are relying on counsel for the parents who hope to adopt.”
One woman who has adopted three children said she has already seen the effects of eliminating the specialty positions.
“My worker, she looked me straight in the eye in the beginning and said, ‘I’ve never done this before, and I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’ll do my absolute best,’” said the woman, who didn’t want to give her name for fear of reprisal. She said the worker did a great job but added that “most of them do not have her attitude.”
Adoption specialists are critical for a child welfare agency, said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights, a national advocacy group.
“You do need specialists. When you put those responsibilities onto workers with high caseloads, it’s bound to result in very bad consequences for kids.”