With caseloads this high, child welfare workers in Kansas can’t do right by kids

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In the Kansas City area, child welfare workers investigating abuse and neglect for the Kansas Department for Children and Families are handling far too many cases to do right by either children or their families.

Saddling workers with an average caseload of 55, when the maximum average is supposed to be 15, is a recipe for just the sort of preventable tragedies we’ve seen so many times before.

Statewide, the average caseload of 38 is still more than twice what it’s supposed to be.

No wonder, then, that some investigations have taken up to two years to close. An antique computer system, training delays and trouble filling vacancies all feed on each other, according to an Annie E. Casey Foundation report The Star obtained.

One worker whose job it was to screen calls said with no training and little support, she had no idea what she was doing. With children’s lives in the balance, that sounds both harrowing and criminally negligent.

In the 10 months since Gina Meier-Hummel took over leadership of the dysfunctional agency, she’s made some potentially important changes, such as training workers sooner and filling a number of openings.

She’s also loosened the requirements for child welfare workers, who no longer have to be licensed social workers, which is a risky proposition, given how crucial their decisions are.

And she’s changed how hotline calls are screened. Now, if one worker decides that a report doesn’t require an investigation, a second screener will look at the same case to make sure that was the right call.

Even after adding 10 more workers in this area, the caseload is still more than triple what it should be, with an average of 51.

Children sleeping in offices have continued to be a problem on her watch, with a 13-year-old in the state’s custody reportedly raped in May at a child welfare office in Olathe. The young man charged with the assault last month was also in the state’s care and staying in the office while waiting to be placed in a foster home. After The Star reported that attack, Meier-Hummel said that the state’s foster care contractors would face fines and citations if they continued to have children sleep in their offices.

Especially in a time of full-employment, Meier-Hummel knows she can’t expect to fill jobs that require three times the work, along with the stress of knowing that a slip-up could cost a child his or her life, for low pay. In May, lawmakers gave the agency $28 million more, which still may not be enough.

If the most recent funding infusion saves lives, it will be worth that and more, but we’re eager to see some positive results follow the promises and the imploring.