Child welfare workers investigating abuse and neglect are supposed to carry a maximum caseload of about 15.
But in the Kansas City area, workers for the Kansas Department for Children and Families recently carried an average of 55 cases. Statewide, the number was 38.
“We knew our caseworkers were overloaded, there’s no denying that,” said Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam. “But that high?”
Plus, some abuse and neglect investigations across Kansas took several months, even up to a year or two, to close. And DCF has been crippled by an archaic computer system, a lack of timely training for employees and also has struggled to keep workers and fill positions.
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That’s the grim look of Kansas’ child welfare system recently detailed by an outside assessment team. Reviewers with the Annie E. Casey Foundation studied the front-end of Kansas DCF — from the hotline call center and information system to the investigative division — and compiled a report, which The Star has obtained.
When Gina Meier-Hummel took over the troubled agency in December, it was widely-known across Kansas that the system designed to protect children was broken. To see how badly, the new secretary requested a top-to-bottom review.
And this recent report, a nine-month snapshot of Kansas’ system from July 2017 to March 2018, is a part of that.
“It confirmed a lot of what we knew,” said Meier-Hummel, the DCF secretary. “Instantaneously, we started working on what can we change. ... Quite honestly, there were so many things that needed to be addressed.”
Several months after she received the report, Meier-Hummel said her administration has made crucial improvements in training and the screening of hotline calls. But in some areas, lawmakers and advocates worry that change isn’t happening fast enough to keep children across the state protected.
Especially when it comes to caseloads for investigators.
“It’s disturbing and shocking to see these numbers and all the other numbers coming out recently,” said Benet Magnuson, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit justice center serving vulnerable and excluded Kansans. “It’s also pretty disturbing to think that the system wouldn’t be aware of these problems that have been going on many years. ... I would say that some people have been sounding the alarm.”
While Kansas City-area investigators had significantly high caseloads, so did investigators in Wichita. Workers there had an average caseload of 50.
Members of a legislative task force have been trying to determine how to help fix the broken system. One member, Ousley, said he wasn’t aware that the investigative caseloads had grown so high.
“That’s the part of it that becomes frustrating,” he said. “What it is today would be useful knowledge to know; to know, ‘Have we done anything about that?’ How immediate did they start to address the numbers and create a safer environment for the front-line defense for our kids?”
In Wichita, filling dozens of vacancies has helped lower caseloads to 35, which advocates say is still too high. But in the Kansas City area, the caseload still averages 51, despite an additional 10 workers added after the legislature allotted more money last session.
Taylor Forrest, a DCF spokeswoman, said the agency is working to fill vacant positions and new workers soon will be able to handle more cases. When offices are fully staffed, the caseloads will go down, Forrest said.
The concern, Magnuson said, is that children aren’t served properly when workers are made to juggle three and four times the best practice caseload.
“We know that caseloads are tied to outcomes,” he said. “And with these critical positions, these outcomes are the safety and welfare of children.”
Overwhelming caseloads can be too much for workers, said Lori Burns-Bucklew, a Kansas City attorney and accredited child welfare law specialist.
“That’s an area of work where people are prone to secondary trauma and burnout,” Burns-Bucklew said. “No wonder it is hard to keep workers if they have that high of caseload.”
The report also pointed out that some workers who take and screen hotline calls weren’t given the training they needed. One screener told the outside review team only one month of training was provided.
“I was like, ‘What am I doing?’” the worker said, according to the report. “I didn’t have the support or training.”
Meier-Hummel said that when she took over, she soon realized that screeners wouldn’t receive the full training for up to six to eight months.
“That’s ridiculous,” the DCF secretary said. “Now we have them doing initial training within three weeks.”
Magnuson applauded that change, yet added: “But gosh there’s an awful long way to go.”
Meier-Hummel’s administration has also implemented another change when it comes to screening hotline calls. Now, if a call is “screened out,” meaning the worker deems it doesn’t warrant investigation, another staff member will review it. If there’s a disagreement, a supervisor will review the call.
“Now, there is a minimum of two people who review a report not assigned,” said Susan Gile, deputy secretary of DCF. Before, there wasn’t that built-in quality assurance because only one worker may have reviewed a call before it was screened out.
Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said the new secretary and DCF have “made great strides this past year.”
“I look forward to continue working with them and the next administration to advance our goal of protecting all children and promoting healthy families here in Kansas.”