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Solutions needed for child services caseload crunch

July 15, 2015

Social service workers everywhere report being overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases they are being assigned and asked to manage. A recent report in the Louisville Courier-Journal cited a situation in Northern Kentucky where nearly 100 cases of alleged child abuse or neglect got lost in the system — some not assigned to workers for investigation and others languishing for months after social workers responsible for them resigned.

Now comes a report that an Indiana Department of Child Services family case manager is suing her employer, claiming the agency is failing to comply with Indiana law, making it “extremely difficult” for her to do her job and putting children at risk (story below).

Protecting children and providing for healthy outcomes involve complex, but critically important issues that demand sustainable solutions for the children, their families and for the workers who daily struggle to provide compassionate, caring support and help.

While whistleblowers and lawsuits may be inconvenient, they are necessary to ensure that gaps and failures are seen and solutions provided.

From the Indianapolis Star:

Employee sues DCS over ‘excessive caseloads’

DCS director calls lawsuits ‘distractions,’ says agency is hiring and training additional staff

A Department of Child Services family case manager is suing her employer, claiming the agency’s failure to comply with Indiana law is making it “extremely difficult” for her to do her job and is putting children at risk.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed the lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of DCS family case manager Mary Price and all other family case managers employed by the state agency. The lawsuit claims Price and other employees are handling caseloads that “greatly exceed the maximum ratios” required by state law, court records state.

Family case managers investigate allegations of abuse and neglect against children and handle ongoing case management for kids in the child welfare system, among other duties.

Price, who has worked for DCS for nearly five years, is handling 43 ongoing cases, according to the lawsuit. Indiana law requires family case managers to handle no more than 17 ongoing cases or 12 initial assessments.

Price was suspended for two weeks in January for violating the DCS Code of Conduct, according to the State Personnel Department. A state personnel spokeswoman said she couldn’t provide more information.

In the lawsuit, Price argues that she and other family case managers are struggling to keep up — despite working much more than 40 hours per week.

“Ultimately, it is the children of Indiana who suffer because of the caseloads, as FCMs are unable to provide the type of attention to their cases that they could if the ratios were met,” according to the lawsuit.

In a written statement, DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura said lawsuits are “distractions from the essential efforts underway to help children in need.”

“Our commitment to Hoosier children is genuine and resolute, and we are 100 percent engaged in hiring more caseworkers and increasing training opportunities as directed by Governor (Mike) Pence and the 2015 General Assembly,” Bonaventura said in the statement.

DCS officials previously acknowledged their failure to comply with mandated caseload standards.

In November, DCS Chief of Staff Doris Tolliver told the State Budget Committee that only one of DCS’ 19 regions — the agency’s central office — was in compliance. Bonaventura said the agency has been handling more cases and a higher volume of calls to its child abuse and neglect hotline. Reports to the hotline rose 81.5 percent, from 109,489 in 2009 to 198,684 in 2014, state records show.

Earlier this year, DCS officials sought and received funding to hire 100 more family case managers. Bonaventura said she also would hire an additional 17 administrative employees and eight attorneys to handle the increased workload.

The agency has 91 open family case manager positions. And 222 case managers are in training.

“By July 27, we will have hired all of the newly-created positions for our 100 family case managers and their training will then commence immediately,” Bonaventura said in the statement. “DCS is working diligently to bring help and hope to children affected by the tragedy of child abuse.”

But Price’s lawsuit claims DCS still doesn’t have enough funding to cover the number of employees needed to meet required caseload limitations. It argues that excessive caseloads lead to higher employee turnover, as employees leave for jobs that are less stressful and demanding.

The starting salary for a family case manager is $33,748, DCS spokesman James Wide said. Upon completion of training, those employees’ salaries are bumped to $35,776.

He said DCS probably wouldn’t meet mandated caseload limitations if it were fully staffed, because “the caseload changes daily, as children are abused and neglected.”

Price is asking a judge to force DCS to comply with the caseload limits.

“It’s not enough to simply pass laws that say we’ll do the right thing,” Jane Henegar, executive director of the ACLU of Indiana, said in a written statement. “The purpose of caseload limits is the safety and welfare of vulnerable children. We expect government to meet the letter and the spirit of the law, providing children with the protections they deserve.”

Call Star reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski at (317) 444-6135. Follow her on Twitter: @IndyMarisaK.