Caseworkers for the Department of Children and Families have unreasonably high workloads and are looking for relief, which may come from the 81 new staff members stepping into their ranks, the department’s court-appointed overseer says.
According to Raymond Mancuso, the monitor appointed to oversee the agency’s improvement, DCF workers have been struggling with excessive workloads for months, despite reform efforts which have reduced the number of children in the child welfare system.
“At the time of the drafting … over 200 social workers have caseloads at 100-150% of the existing caseload standards…” Mancuso wrote in his latest quarterly report, “… and 77 of those workers have exceeded 100% for over 30 days.”
DCF has been battling this problem since reforms altered the nature of cases assigned to caseworkers.
The introduction of the Family Assessment Response program has allowed DCF to respond differently to low-risk cases than they would high-risk cases, keeping families together and lowering the number of children placed in foster care unnecessarily. But it does have consequences.
“…With low risk cases diverted away from the department, every child who remains in DCF care has complex needs and requires extensive attention,” said Edie Joseph, policy fellow for Connecticut Voices for Children. “Suddenly, social workers who once had a ‘mixed’ caseload of low-, medium-, and high-risk cases now must care for only high-risk children who require constant attention.”
With caseloads at over 100 percent recommended levels, all of them high-risk, high-work cases, workers are strained.
“As in any field, if you ask too much of someone, if there’s too much work, you lose quality, and you can’t compromise quality when it comes to children,” said Mickey Kramer, Connecticut’s associate child advocate.
At the moment, however, that’s the compromise being made.
“It translates into not being able to spend enough time trying to sort through the needs of children and families and connect them to appropriate departments,” Kramer said.
The department is working to improve. In 1989, Children’s Rights, a national child advocacy group, filed suit against the state, seeking improvements in its child welfare system. In 1991, a settlement was reached requiring extensive reforms — all under supervision of a monitor appointed by the federal court.
Since then, the requirements have gone through several iterations, until in 2004 they became the present “Exit Plan,” which requires DCF to work to comply with 22 outcome measures before leaving the supervision of the monitor.
As of March, the state has complied with 15 of these measures, which include regulations on adoption and treatment plans, according to the court monitor’s newest report, filed in July. Other improvements include lowering the total number of children in care by 14.1 percent, and increasing by 13.6 percent the number of children living with a relative or someone else they know.
“If you review the last five to six reports, what you see is a story painted of pretty significant improvements,” said Fernando Muniz, deputy commissioner of DCF.
Among the seven outcome measures still not met are those dictating case planning and the placement of siblings.
Muniz said the report portrays the situation well. “I think that the findings are pretty accurate and mirror what we’ve found internally,” he said.
One of the more recent improvements is the addition of 81 new staff members to help ease the staffing issue. “I think for now the number of workers will be enough for the caseload,” Muniz said.
Others are less sure. Ira Lustbader, the litigation director at Children’s Rights, said that the new workers were a good step, but not a solution. “I don’t think that will be enough,” Lustbader said.
Lustbader said that DCF’s Commissioner Joette Katz, appointed four years ago, has been a driving force behind the recent and ongoing reforms. “We’re meeting with Commissioner Katz in September to see what her plans are,” Lustbader said.
“One of the advantages in having Katz leading DCF is she has really been transparent about owning what the needs are,” Lustbader said. “She is aware of what the issues are and is committed to fixing them.”
A significant improvement under Katz has been the reduction of the number of children in out-of state facilities. “When Katz came on board, there were 360-plus kids placed out of state,” said Muniz. “Now it’s down to 19.”
Muniz said that other improvements will include lowering the number of children in congregate care, streamlining family investigation processes, and improving community resources to help families solve problems before they have to get involved with DCF.
More than 20 years after the initial suit, Muniz said the court-ordered reforms may be nearing their conclusion. “It could take another year or two,” he said.