It’s a crisis that’s been building for years: State social workers juggling high caseloads and high-stress environments for low pay.
Now the crisis is turning critical as more than 600 social workers have left the Department for Community Based Services (DCBS) this year alone, according to recent testimony by Commissioner Marta Miranda-Straub. She told lawmakers last month that social workers could make more money tending bar or working in a bookstore.
The exodus has resulted in an 18 percent increase in the average case load carried by the remaining social workers. That’s made an already difficult job even more demanding and puts Kentucky’s abused and neglected children at greater risk.
“We just are starting to not have enough folks in the field,” says Secretary Eric Friedlander of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS), which includes DCBS. “That impacts then our reports on abuse and neglect, [and] how quickly we can respond.”
In a recent opinion piece in the Lexington Herald-Leader, social worker Devin Reul described the demands of his job in harrowing detail: The late-night emergency phone calls, the dangerous home visits to remove a child, last-minute court hearings, and exposure to the “soul-crushing weight of clients’ trauma.” Now with departures escalating, Reul says some of his peers are managing 40 ongoing cases and as many as 100 investigative cases – all for pay that is sometimes as low as $15 an hour.
And some of Kentucky’s most vulnerable citizens will pay the price.
“If we continue to lose workers like this, the cases keep getting higher,” says Reul. “If children don’t get seen, then children can get hurt.”
A Push for Higher Pay and Better Benefits
Kentucky House Speaker Pro Tem David Meade (R-Stanford) is sympathetic to the plight of social workers. He sponsored legislation in the 2018 session that enacted wide-ranging reforms to the state’s child welfare systems. He admits many lawmakers simply don’t understand how stressful and dangerous the job of a social worker can be.
“We heard a story here awhile back about one gentleman being held at gunpoint when he went in to take the children away,” says Meade. “Those are situations where these folks deserve more pay, they deserve to be compensated for what they’re doing.”
Meade says there was a push in the last budget cycle to boost the pay of state social workers. But he adds that the idea was dropped after other CHFS staff complained about the disparity of giving some people raises but not others. Meade says the state can’t afford across-the-board pay raises.
“So let’s focus in on the situation that we can handle, let’s take care of the need that we have in hand right now with those social workers,” he says.
In addition to pay raises, Meade says social workers need more paid time off and mental health supports to help them process the stress and trauma they are exposed to.
State social workers are participating in a wellness initiative that’s using biometric monitoring devices to measure their stress levels on the job. Austin Griffiths, director of the Center for Child Welfare Education and Research at Western Kentucky University, says this data is critical to understanding the amount of stress social workers carry. It can also inform policies to protect the health and wellbeing of these employees.
“This job is really out of sight and out of mind… Until you see or experience what’s happening, you just don’t know,” says Griffiths, who worked for six years in child protective services for the state. “There are no boundaries on behalf what you’re expected to do.”
CHFS Secretary Friedlander says the cabinet has put more focus on providing support services for its social workers. He says employees should no longer fear speaking out about what they need.
“There will be no retaliation,” says Friedlander. “If you can’t advocate for yourself, who can you advocate for? I think that’s the systemic piece that we’ve tried to change.”
This combination of higher pay and more mental health supports are critical, says University of Kentucky College of Social Work Dean Justin Miller, who grew up in foster care and later worked as a child protective services investigator.
“If we value Kentucky’s children and families, we will invest in a workforce that can keep them safe and protected,” says Miller.
Funding for Preventative Measures
Another option to reduce the workload on social workers is to implement preventive strategies and family supports that help keep families together and children out of state care in the first place. But since the 2008 recession, many of those services have been scaled back due to funding cuts.
“There just wasn’t money or resources to get in and help families that were in trouble and prevent bad situations from turning worse,” says Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Deborah Yetter, who has covered the state social services system for years.
Family Drug Courts are an example of an effective program that faltered for a lack of funding. Yetter says these specialized courts worked intensively with drug offenders to help them break their addiction and address their family needs. She says the courts had good success rates but were largely discontinued in 2010 because of budget cuts. (Local leaders have mustered sufficient funding to revive the courts in Jefferson and Clay Counties, according to Yetter.)
Friedlander says he believes the preventive services the state is able to offer now are having an impact. He points to a decline in the number of children who need out-of-home care. But to build what state officials call the social services system of the 21st century, Friedlander says he wants to ensure that safety-net supports are readily available to families in need across the state.
“We have talked about prevention for years and years and years, and we have not funded it,” says Friedlander. “We have to do that. We have to make a difference upstream before a child comes into the system.”
Caseloads and Privatization
State officials are also considering ways to address the caseloads that social workers carry. During periods of low staffing, individual social workers have to take on more cases. But what actually constitutes a case?
Traditionally, a single case might comprise one child or it could involve an entire family or even multiple generations of a family. Griffiths says the best social workers tend to be assigned to the most challenging cases, a phenomenon that he says is called “performance punishment.”
Social work officials are starting to consider the scope or “weight” of each case that an employee may be assigned. Miller says that would allow a more equitable and manageable distribution of complicated cases among social workers.
“Those cases take longer to work and they’re much more intense, which can lead to more stress, vicarious trauma, etc. for the worker,” says Miller. “There are a number of different factors that you have to not only asses but then find an adequate and appropriate response to… Trying to resource and put together a plan to deal with those can be difficult and time consuming.”
Another option the General Assembly could pursue is privatizing some of the state’s social service functions. Rep. Meade says lawmakers considered that as part of the 2018 child welfare reforms but didn’t include that in that legislation. He says the idea is that CHFS and DCBS would continue to do child welfare investigations while moving the social service supports to the private sector.
“Many times when you do that, those public-private partnerships seem to work out a little bit better because the private side seems to have more resources,” says Meade.
Miller says the state already contracts with private child care facilities for a range of services. He says such partnerships are promising, but must be carefully structured.
The question is, can any of these solutions be implemented fast enough to stem the current tide of departures among social workers employed by the commonwealth? Devin Reul says he and his fellow social workers are proud of the work they do and want to continue to do it, but he also warns that their employment situations must be improved, for the good of the employees and the children and families they serve.
“I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. I’m very dedicated to what I do and all of us are,” says Reul. But he warns, “at some point you have to decide as a worker whether or not you can do this.”