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Blog, In the News

As caseloads mount, social workers feel strain

June 22, 2015

From the Courier-Journal, June 22, 2015:

State social service officials in Northern Kentucky lost track of nearly 100 cases of alleged child abuse or neglect — some not assigned to workers for investigation and others languishing for months after social workers responsible for them resigned.

The cases included babies born with drugs in their system, children living with heroin addicts — one in a home where an adult overdosed — and children exposed to violence, firearms and other hazardous situations, according to records from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Cabinet officials scrambled to assign the 92 cases to workers when they were discovered in the Boone County office earlier this year, according to the records. State law and regulations spell out strict timelines for investigating such allegations.

They also have opened an investigation into the matter and have sent extra staff in to beef up operations in the 12-county Northern Bluegrass Region, cabinet spokeswoman Gwenda Bond said Friday.

But the lapse comes as the Department for Community Based Services, the cabinet’s social service agency, continues to struggle with a lack of funding, high turnover of social workers, increasing reports of abuse and neglect and rising caseloads for workers.

Current and former social workers report increasing disarray at the agency, describing it as a punishing, pressure-cooker environment where they are driven to meet quotas and punished for speaking out or reporting problems. Workers leave faster than they can be replaced, some for other jobs and some with no jobs at all.

In Louisville, 17-year social worker Patricia Pregliasco said the turnover in the office has been devastating.

“There’s nobody left,” Pregliasco said. “We are losing all these experienced workers.”

As a result, she said, cases are dragging out longer and families must wait longer for important decisions about custody, foster placement, reunification and adoption.

“No one understands the trauma this is causing to the kids or the families,” Pregliasco said.

Traci Coleman, 37, who worked as a social worker in Fayette County for 10 years before she abruptly quit in March, said that so many workers left a supervisor began exhorting staff “to commit to not quit.”

Teresa James, commissioner of the department, said in a recent interview she has been working to recruit workers, reduce caseloads and improve working conditions for employees. Yet she acknowledged limited success with some offices in the state posting vacancy rates of 20 to 35 percent.

But James said the relatively low pay—social workers start at about $32,000 a year—and stressful work make it difficult.

“The job is demanding,” she said. “This is hard work.”

But some workers say that wasn’t why they left. Rather, they cited unrealistic demands of supervisors and lack of support as they struggled to keep families together and protect children from harm.

“I didn’t slack, I took my job seriously,” said Joyce Graves, 67, who retired last year from the agency’s Northern Kentucky region. “I did the best I could, yet that didn’t seem to be enough.”

Coleman said that during her career as a state social worker she had been threatened at her home by a client, stressed by high caseloads and witnessed high turnover of employees. But that wasn’t what triggered her to leave.

Rather, Coleman said, it was her growing belief that constant churn of cases and workers, endless paperwork and pressure to meet deadlines was not helping troubled families the agency is supposed to serve.

“It was the hopelessness of it, the ultimate realization that we had done more harm than good by knocking on that door,” said Coleman, who now works in banking.

Coleman said she found little support from an agency more preoccupied with closing cases and meeting deadlines than the welfare of social workers.

“They steamroll over workers like they steamroll over families,” she said.

A Northern Kentucky supervisor, Tim Williams, in May notified cabinet officials he believed he experienced retaliation after he reported concerns about the region, including the discovery of the unassigned cases. A week later, he was abruptly transferred to another county by Lisa Prewitt, the top supervisor of the Northern Kentucky region.

Williams repeated his concerns about problems in the region and alleged relation in a letter to James, the commissioner, on May 21.

Bond, the cabinet spokeswoman, said all employees are encouraged to report any concerns without fear of retaliation. She said the department is undertaking a “thorough assessment” of the region.

Kelly Wiley, a lawyer who represents Williams and other workers in Northern Kentucky, said the agency’s discovery that it had mislaid cases is symptomatic of deeper problems of management and employee morale that officials haven’t addressed.

“The Titanic is sinking and the cabinet is rearranging the deck chairs,” she said.

Fayette Family Court Judge Lucinda Masterton said she’s increasingly concerned about social workers who appear in her court as the number of children in foster care rises and worker caseloads grow.

“I’m very worried about these workers,” she said. “I think they are demoralized. I think they are discounted. If we’re not going to pay them anything, I think we at least ought to value their work.”

Under Kentucky law, if average caseloads per worker rise above 25 for more than 90 days, the cabinet is required to report that to the governor and the legislator. National accreditation standards limit caseloads to 18 per worker.

James, the commissioner, said that although caseloads are high — with some workers carrying 50 or more cases — her department has not exceeded the average 25 per worker that would trigger a report to the governor and legislature.

In June, the so-called “frontline” social workers who handle cases averaged 23.9 cases each, according to a report produced by James’ department.

Coleman, the former Fayette worker, called that average the cabinet’s “magic numbers,” saying most workers carry far more cases.

Caseloads of 30 to 50 cases each are typical, she said. And every case represents at least one parent and child the worker must keep track of, frequent reports, home visits at least once a month, court appearances and phone calls, emails and conferences.

“You don’t just have 40 cases,” Graves said. “You have 40 families.”

Masterson said some workers she sees in her courtroom are carrying up to 50 cases.

“I know they have more than 25,” she said.

Wiley says she doesn’t think the state’s statistics on caseloads are reliable, considering the missing cases in Northern Kentucky. When officials discovered them, they doled the additional cases out to workers who already had high caseloads, she said.

“There is no value to the statistics,” she said.

The stress
In Northern Kentucky, as caseloads grew, so did pressure from supervisors to complete more cases faster. Graves said workers used to joke about whether they should just do drive-by home visits—asking a parent to hold the child up to a window as a social worker drove past to check on their welfare.

But the growing stress was no joke for Graves, who said she had planned to work until age 66 but sought retirement sooner after developing a heart condition and panic attacks her doctor said were related to stress.

Graves believed she also experienced retaliation from supervisors after she began questioning caseloads and got in a dispute with a supervisor she believed inappropriately intervened in one of her cases. After Graves submitted her notice of retirement, she received a notice she faced potential disciplinary action for missing a deadline in a case, an accusation Graves denies.

“What was the point of that?” asked Graves, who retired with the accusation unresolved.

Paula Sluder, 48, of Lexington, worked about a year as a social worker in Campbell and Nicholas counties before she quit last week because of stress that at one point sent her to the hospital with soaring blood pressure. Her workload kept her from keeping doctor’s appointments, she said.

“It just got so hectic,” Sluder said.

Coleman said the department has failed to address the stress among workers.

“They turn a blind eye until a worker goes on an extended sick leave — or quits,” she said. “I’m just glad to be away from it.”

Reporter Deborah Yetter can be reached at (502) 582-4228.