April 26, 2014

Jackson County’s child welfare division continues to fall short

Nearly five years after Missouri’s child welfare system received a national stamp of approval — which cost about $20 million to obtain — the local division is struggling to make enough improvements and provide all the necessary evidence to prove it is worthy of reaccreditation. High turnover, inexperienced workers and overwhelming caseloads remain problems.

Despite an intensive push and additional resources, Jackson County’s child welfare division has failed to get past problems that have plagued the office for at least a year: high turnover, inexperienced workers and overwhelming caseloads.

Nearly five years after Missouri’s child welfare system received a national stamp of approval — which cost about $20 million to obtain — the local division is struggling to make enough improvements and provide all the necessary evidence to prove it is worthy of reaccreditation. The Council on Accreditation has notified the Jackson County office, for the second time since last fall, that it still falls short of meeting standards.

“It’s certainly discouraging,” said Lori Ross, president and CEO of the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association. “It’s discouraging to the folks who work at the Children’s Division, discouraging to the community to see there’s been a backslide in the quality of service.

“On the other hand, it’s nice to have a road map to know what you have to do to improve. In a lot of ways it allows us as a community to see what needs to improve.”

The accreditation agency deferred the reaccreditation decision for three more months, asking the county division for more evidence and clarification in specific areas. Two other regional offices in the state have received the same deferral, and two more are in the first round of making necessary changes and submitting more information.

If one office fails to obtain reaccreditation, the whole state fails. Legislators ordered the Children’s Division to achieve accreditation after a child died more than a decade ago at the hands of his foster father in southwest Missouri.

In multiple stories last year, The Star detailed how the Jackson County Children’s Division had gone from a state model several years ago to a troubled system that dozens of veteran workers and investigators had fled.

Caseloads had skyrocketed to two or three times the national standard. Inexperienced workers were showing up at court unprepared, and in some cases that extended a child’s stay in state care. New management in Jackson County, which initially took over in October 2011, had become too focused on performance statistics and less on children and families, current and past workers said.

When the Council on Accreditation review team arrived in Jackson County this past October, the panel heard some of that from advocates, community members and current workers. Two months later, in an extensive and sometimes critical report, the council listed more than two dozen problems — many of which the newspaper detailed in its series — that needed corrective action.

Jill Katz, a Kansas City attorney who has represented parents in family court, said the local system is still in flux. She knows workers continue to leave and some new hires still show up unprepared for court.

“We’re still on that bubble,” Katz said. “We’ve done really well and then we’ve hit almost bottom, and it’s time to get better again. We haven’t bounced up from bottom again. I hope this is a bottom and it doesn’t get worse.”

In this most recent report, delivered this month, the national council said the county office had, in many cases, presented thorough plans for improvement and implemented additional training and programs. But, the report said, the agency hadn’t provided adequate information — which could just be additional paperwork — to show that more than a dozen standards had been adequately addressed. Those standards included excessive caseloads and inexperience of workers and supervisors, as well as adequate education.

The review team pointed out that 74 percent of alternative care workers had less than a year of experience and that the majority of supervisors in that area had less than a year of experience in that job.

“The plan provided for how to correct this issue is solid,” the report said, regarding excessive caseloads and experience of workers. “However it is unclear how the region is planning to encourage staff without a related degree AND less (than) two years of experience to return to school, how they determine what is considered human-service-related degrees and how the region stands percentagewise compared to four years ago.”

The county office now has until July 10 to provide more information.

Emily van Schenkhof of Missouri KidsFirst said she is not familiar enough with reaccreditation to know whether the deferral is just part of the process.

“What I do know is we have a problem and there are things that need to be fixed in the state,” said van Schenkhof, adding that advocates across Missouri want to work with the state division and its new director, Tim Decker, to improve the system.

She and others, including Ross, are encouraged by Decker’s leadership and his actions since he took over the state’s top child welfare post in late November.

Since that time, Decker has visited regional offices across Missouri, getting to know caseworkers and what they do. He said he has taken note of the challenges they face and the progress they have made. Decker said he has spent significant time in Jackson County and has confidence in the local management.

He won’t say that he is concerned about the Jackson County deferral and the need for more work. Part of this, Decker said, comes with the interactive nature of reaccreditation.

“The memo (from the Council on Accreditation) noted we have excellent plans in place and that they were encouraged by our progress,” Decker said. “We are determined to persist toward reaccreditation. In these scenarios, when you’re really serious about achieving something, you focus on it. It’s not constructive to worry about it. I’m focused on what it’s going to take to get there.”

Decker also pointed out that it took roughly five years to gain accreditation and that it can take time to earn reaccreditation.

Some say the Council on Accreditation reports are more of an indictment on the lack of support and resources the agency has to work with, not the performance of the agency.

“In my view, they’re pointing out what the legislature needs to do,” said Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, a Kansas City Democrat. “They’re saying there needs to be programs, tools and resources so you can do what you need to do to retain employees.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Nixon recommended an additional $6 million for the Children’s Division, which is an arm of the Department of Social Services. Nixon earmarked those funds for what Decker called “critical areas,” most of which would address what the Council on Accreditation review teams found lacking.

Those additional funds would, among other things, provide funding to hire 23 children’s service investigators and caseworkers, which Decker said Friday could mean as many as four more positions for Jackson County; upgrade the division’s computer software and systems; and implement a loan forgiveness program for new and current employees who work in parts of the state with high turnover.

The House approved additional funds, including some earmarked for additional workers, training and software. The Senate has yet to vote on its budget proposal, but advocates worry it will be significantly short of the House plan.

Recommendations outlined in the governor’s budget were “laser-focused strategies” to address challenges the agency faces, Decker said.

“If it were actually funded,” he said, “it would position us to meet these standards.”

What Katz and others see is a need for proper funding as well as support for front line workers, especially in Jackson County. It has to happen, she said, for the local system to be great again.

“I think the system, it’s never been perfect, ever,” Katz said. “Perfect would be no child abuse and no need for this. But there are tons of passionate people out there who want to do this work.”

“ The agency is not helping them do the work.”

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