The long-troubled child welfare system in Georgia is showing some signs of positive change.
Additional DFCS workers have been hired, caseloads have dropped, and recommendations from a reform council are being enacted.
At the same time, though, keeping DFCS caseworkers remains a problem. Job turnover among these professionals remains high, so the benefit of their education and experience is often lost to the agency.
The annual turnover rate for frontline workers is about 35 percent statewide. That worker churn generally is higher in metro Atlanta, “where there are more job opportunities for people with this skill set,’’ says Ashley Fielding, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services.
Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services has been an agency under siege for some time, with high caseloads, stagnant pay and low morale among its workers. In addition, the especially horrific deaths of two children in recent years brought more public and legislative attention to the program.
Much of the DFCS problem can be linked to funding cuts.
From 2006 to 2010, state funding for child welfare dropped by 39 percent — the largest reduction of any state, according to Bobby Cagle, who took over as DFCS director a year ago.
Four years of state worker furloughs — where pay was actually reduced — took its toll, says Alberta Ellett, a child welfare expert at the University of Georgia’s School of Social Work.
A 35 percent turnover rate is better than previous rates in Georgia, “but is still too high,’’ Ellett says.
Pay and workload can make a big difference in retention, she adds.
DFCS has added 450 frontline child welfare staff since July 2014.
Caseloads that exceeded 100 clients for some workers have shrunk significantly. The average is now about 19 clients per caseworker. The goal is 15.
“Staff are getting the message that help is on the way,” Fielding says.
There is also an additional $5 million allocated for performance-based pay raises, tied to merit, competency and experience. “We want to incentivize people to stay on the front lines,” Fielding says.
Starting pay for frontline workers with a bachelor’s degree averages about $28,000, and for a master’s level worker, it’s $32,000.
UGA’s Ellett notes that turnover rates can vary widely among states, depending on factors such as worker pay and education level.
Professionalism and safety
DFCS is now implementing an employee selection protocol, developed by Ellett with agency input, that requires applicants to know something about what they are getting into. The applicants must read a job description overview, watch a video that describes the casework, and complete a self-assessment.
“Hopefully, people who are not a good fit for this work will screen themselves out,” Ellett says.
There is also progress on protecting caseworkers, who occasionally must deal with potentially violent adults. DFCS, along with Georgia Tech, is developing a high-tech “panic button” to help keep staff safe as they visit families in their homes, many times at night and alone.
A mentoring program has been installed for new caseworkers.
It takes two years for a new caseworker to become skilled and knowledgeable,’’ Ellett says. “We’re hopeful we will see an increase in [worker] retention.”
And DFCS is reinstituting a program that funds education for students pursuing degrees in social work in exchange for service with the agency.
“The work in child protective services, case management and foster care is a very difficult job in the best of circumstances,’’ says Karl Lehman of Childkind, an Atlanta nonprofit that delivers services for children who are disabled or have medically complex conditions.
“Bobby Cagle and the department have the right strategy,’’ Lehman says. “I think it will have a very positive impact on the workforce going forward.”