In the aftermath of five high-profile child deaths, record numbers of children entering foster care and recent reports of the Kansas Department for Children and Families using gag orders to cover its shortcomings, DCF is clearly in crisis.
Kansas’ child welfare system has long struggled with inadequate funding. In 1989, an attorney acting on behalf of a child sued the state, arguing that Kansas was endangering the children in its care by providing so few services. Unable to disprove the allegations, legislators in 1996 sanctioned an initiative led by then-Gov. Bill Graves that allowed long-established private, nonprofit organizations to take over most of the state’s responsibilities.
This privatized system received an infusion of new dollars, leading to improved conditions and outcomes. Kansas was nationally recognized for resolving many of its child welfare woes.
Now — 20 years later — the system is again woefully underfunded. DCF has cut its social worker positions by 20 percent, despite an additional 33 percent increase in children entering the system during the past five years. Experienced social workers have left in droves.
Many of these positions have been filled with young adults with associate degrees, or no degree at all. Oftentimes, the most qualified person isn’t deciding what’s best for the child. This is dangerous and can mean the difference between life and death for children. A far better safeguard would be to pay well-trained, professional social workers what they’re worth, building a system the public can trust.
Historically, child welfare is where new social work graduates would begin their career. Now, many graduates are opting out of working in child welfare because of the excessively high workloads, inadequate supervision and long hours, including on-call hours during the evenings and weekends.
The number of licensed social workers available to work in child welfare in Kansas has increased for the past five years. Nine accredited Kansas colleges’ social work programs also report strong numbers of graduates at the bachelor’s and master’s level. Yet Kansas has discontinued its Child Welfare Scholars Program, which was facilitated by the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare, with these schools. The program was successful in helping Kansas access additional federal money under the Title IV-E program to recruit and train students to work in child welfare.
Lawmakers’ resistance to adequately fund a continuum of family-based supports has led to high employee turnover. One common result of this high turnover rate is that many newly-hired social workers find themselves promoted swiftly to supervisory positions. Turnover is also costly to taxpayers. Research shows training a new caseworker can take up to nine months and cost up to 30-50 percent of the person’s annual salary.
Outgoing DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore has stated that Kansas’ requirements for licensed social workers with degrees to do social work are “overly restrictive,” implying that anybody with a high school diploma and a “good heart” is amply qualified to work with trauma, suicide prevention, sexual abuse and a growing epidemic of opioid addictions. This is deeply troubling.
Further, the Kansas Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board has the authority to investigate complaints of unprofessional conduct only with licensed social workers. Vulnerable families don’t have this recourse with unlicensed staffers. Continuing to lower workforce standards will not solve the larger issue of more children coming into the system.
Vulnerable kids should have the same chance to be safe and healthy so they can lead productive lives. For now, meaningful system reform will require significant courage, as competition is great for dollars while Kansas tackles its school funding shortfall.
Gilmore’s retirement on Dec. 1 creates a perfect opportunity for new vision and direction. Our children deserve it.
Becky Fast is executive director of the Kansas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.