State Politics

‘Every phone call is a trauma.’ Idaho’s foster care system to see a boost in support

Evaluating Idaho's foster care

Miren Unsworth and Gary Moore of the Division of Family and Community Services discuss findings of a recent evaluation of Idaho's foster care and adoption services.
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Miren Unsworth and Gary Moore of the Division of Family and Community Services discuss findings of a recent evaluation of Idaho's foster care and adoption services.

Idaho’s child welfare system, the subject of a legislative performance review released in February, is getting some of the additional resources that state evaluators said were needed to address staff burnout, underserved foster families and other issues.

Safety of children is not an issue and the system is not in crisis, evaluators and foster care workers are quick to note. Caseloads are in fact lower now than they were in 2007, the last time the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluation took a look.

But caseload is different from workload. Idaho’s social workers are tasked with more administrative duties than their counterparts elsewhere, and a long-prevalent sense of being overworked is now taken on faith: OPE’s latest report found cultural and perceptual issues that give rise to functional shortcomings.

“The biggest problem is that the dialogue around workload has been around for so long that it’s become an ingrained part of the program,” said Lance McCleve, a principal evaluator who led OPE’s review.

“It’s really unlikely that they’re going to fix these cultural issues if they don’t fix workload.”

FUNDING, POSITIONS RECOMMENDED THIS WEEK

The Legislature’s joint budget committee cited the OPE report and other legislative findings Tuesday when it unanimously approved a Division of Child Welfare budget that exceeded both the Department of Health & Welfare’s request and Gov. Butch Otter’s recommendation.

Besides approving requests for six additional foster care support staff and a 20 percent increase in payments to foster families — bringing Idaho payments in line with other states — budget writers also added two social worker positions.

Assuming the rest of the Legislature agrees, as of July 1 the state would have 266 social worker positions and 20 foster care support staff. The overall budget would see an increase of 5.8 percent to $69.5 million, two-thirds of which is federally funded.

Legislative budget writers recommended a 5.8% increase next year for the Division of Child Welfare.

The additions approved this week will help the division address the issues raised in OPE’s review, said department spokeswoman Niki Forbing-Orr. Pending final approval, the new social workers could be hired as early as late summer, she said.

STAKEHOLDER RELATIONSHIPS AFFECTED

In the budget year that ended last June, more than 2,500 children were placed in foster care; just less than 1,400 were in foster care on June 30. More than nine out of 10 of those children were placed into a family setting, and 40 percent of those were placed with relatives or with “fictive kin” — that is, someone outside the family with a significant relationship to the child.

From 2013 to 2016, according to DHW’s latest annual statistics, the number of children annually placed in care rose about 7 percent while the number of licensed foster homes dropped more than 10 percent, from 1,197 to 1,070.

The OPE study, which counted foster homes differently, saw a similar decline of 8 percent, from 1,062 in March 2014 to 974 in March 2016.

The foster parent shortage is not unique to Idaho: OPE in its research said it found at least 21 states with similar challenges. Foster parents in Idaho quit as fast as the department recruits new ones, the evaluators found. Retention is “a better solution to the problem,” and the increases in payments to families and the boost in support staff are expected to help with that by improving relationships and support for foster families.

“What gets compromised is, when our foster families don’t feel attended to, or aren’t being attended to, there’s frustration in terms of their caring for these kids on a daily basis, and (families) may or may not be getting what they need,” said Miren Unsworth, a deputy administrator in the Division of Family and Community Services who oversees child protection, foster care and adoption programs.

Children coming into the system now “have some of the most complex needs, and their families have some of the most difficult scenarios,” she said. “That’s a lot for a foster family to take on.”

Child welfare programs, she said, also are undergoing “constant evolution.” For those who work in the field, “it feels a little like change fatigue.”

WORKLOAD AND CASELOAD PERCEPTIONS

OPE found a “perception” within the group “that social workers do not have enough time to serve their cases effectively.” A work survey it conducted found staff “believe that social workers are carrying approximately 38 percent more cases than they can effectively serve.”

Child and Family Services’ own most recent analysis of monthly caseloads showed an average 13.5 cases per worker, about 28 percent higher than what staff believe they can carry “while serving every case effectively.”

That those numbers are based on perception doesn’t mean they’re made up, though. McCleve agreed that a sense of being understaffed and overworked has taken hold that contributes to inconsistent output.

The OPE report summed it up this way: “There is a permeating belief among staff that more is demanded of them than they can do. Because of this belief, each aspect of the organizational culture is undercut by a need to address the constant feeling of crisis.”

The annual turnover rate for child protection social workers assigned to the field is 17 percent.

Social workers in the field also experience rapid burnout from the emotionally intense work. The turnover rate in Idaho is about 17 percent annually and typical for the field, said Janet Fletcher, who designed and supervises the central intake call center that handles all initial calls regarding children in need or at risk.

WORK STRAIN

Citing privacy concerns, DHW said it could not make current case workers or foster families available for interviews, but it did allow a visit to the call center and for workers to be interviewed about their work and the emotional toll it takes.

Most of the staff answering calls are social workers who have transferred in from the field. They ask callers detailed questions to determine the level of threat and urgency of response. A caller could be anyone — a neighbor, relative, school official or police officer, or a stranger who saw something concerning. Everyone is Idaho is classified as a “mandated reporter,” required to report abuse if they see it.

Every phone call is a trauma. Nobody calls us with a good story.

Janet Fletcher, Child Welfare Division

The stress call workers face is different from what field staff experience, but still intense. They work at the always-worrisome front end of cases; to minimize the potential for added stress, they are discouraged from following the progress of those cases through the system. During a recent weekday visit to the call center, the fretful subject matter of their work was belied by their calm and measured phone manner.

“Workers in the field are in it, picking up children, getting screamed right in your face,” said Fletcher, who has been with the state for 25 years. “The difference in this unit is at the end of the day, the folks here, their work is done and they can go home and not have it running through their head all night.”

The newest member of the group, Lisa Root, moved after 18 months in the field. She sought it as a permanent new assignment after “a lot of stress” in the field. She had just referred a case of a child with bruises to a regional office for follow-up.

“You have no idea what this work is until you’re walking down the hall to go make a copy at the copy machine and there’s a little girl there who looks up at you and smiles. And she has two black eyes and a fat lip,” Fletcher said. “That’s what the field workers deal with every day.”

Bill Dentzer: 208-377-6438, @DentzerNews

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