7 Investigates: Child Protective Services Workloads

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(WSAW) -- For the first time, the state is in the process of conducting a child welfare workload study. By summer, 2020, Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF) will have new recommendations to help keep kids safer by having data about how social services departments staff and structure their agencies around the state.

Human Services organizations like the Wisconsin County Human Services Association (WCHSA) have already conducted caseload studies and created recommended standards. WCHSA recently completed its study of Wisconsin departments which states, “Wisconsin counties have become increasingly concerned about the status of child protective services. Recent years have seen a surge in the number and complexity of cases due to the opioid and methamphetamine epidemics.”

DCF says about 80% of children in foster care are in foster care because of drug use.

According to DCF data in the Child Protective Services (CPS) Reports Dashboard, in 2007 there were more than 56,000 services reports in Wisconsin; in 2019 for year to date, there have been more than 80,000 service reports, an increase of roughly 26,000 reports. For the 15-county NewsChannel 7 viewing area, there were more than 5,900 reports in 2007 and there have been more than 8,500 reports in the last year.

Following its study, WCHSA recommends:
- Supervisor: Five case-carrying child protective services (CPS) workers per supervisor;
- Access: Eight newly assigned reports per day per worker;
- Initial Assessment: 11 active assessments per worker at any given time with no more than 6 new assessments assigned during a one month period;
- Ongoing: 10 active cases per case-carrying CPS worker, with no more than 15 children;
- Foster Parent Licensing: At most 12-15 children in family foster care (out-of-home services) per worker.

Supervisors, as it sounds, supervise CPS workers. Access workers are the ones taking the reports of abuse and neglect and manage the agency’s phone line for any call that comes into CSP. Initial assessment workers are the ones who take the reports and investigate any alleged abuse or neglect over a 60 day period. Ongoing workers come into play if initial assessment workers believe the family is in need of resources or assistance beyond 60 days to keep children safe. Foster Parent Licensing workers license foster parents and work with foster families.

7 Investigates reached out to 15 counties in north central Wisconsin and found all of the eight counties that responded had caseloads above the recommended standards from WCHSA. However, there many caveats and challenges in getting accurate caseload measurements because each county structures and runs its department a little differently. Often time workers have combined roles, for example, initial assessment workers who also do access.

“Wisconsin’s lack of caseload standards or a comprehensive workload study has deprived legislators of key information for making resource decisions,” the WCHSA stated.

The majority of states have caseload or workload standards. “The State (sic) shares liability for the CPS system, along with assuring compliance with federal performance benchmarks,” it continued. “With local costs exploding and counties under state-imposed levy limits, state-level funding is often the only viable option for addressing the need for additional funding.”

"Statewide, social workers have much too high of a caseload for us to be able to feel that they're working efficiently and to be able to serve families in the way that they need to," Vicki Tylka said.

She is the director of Marathon County Social Services. She also chair of the Children, Youth & Family PAC as part of WCHSA and participated in conducting its caseload study.

"From that caseload study, then it became apparent, and the Department of Children and Families also agreed, that we should get more information and so we're moving forward with a workload study, which is really about how much time it takes to do the different pieces of work in Child Protective Services verses focusing on the number of cases," she explained.

As passed in Wisconsin’s 2019-2021 biennial budget, DCF is required to conduct a workload study. It hired consulting firm ICF, which has also conducted similar studies in states like Colorado. Tylka was asked to be part of the DCF oversight committee and Marathon County CPS workers will participate in the timed study.

Tylka said the three goals of the state’s study is, 1) to understand the current staffing levels in CPS as it compares to the need, 2) to find areas where efficiencies can be built and areas that are taking more time and resources than proves valuable, and 3) to create a tool that would be able to help the state monitor the workload ratio to ensure agencies have the proper resources to serve families.

"What happens when we don't have enough staff in general is social workers are basically putting out fires,” Tylka said. “They're responding to the most significant, urgent need, but they're not able to get in and work with families and engage them and work on the situations that have really created the problems in the first place. So, children tend to stay in out-of-home care longer, we're not able to return them to families on the pace that we would like to, as well as find other permanency options for children, such as adoption or guardianship."

When the job entails seeing children and families at their most vulnerable times, keeping work levels manageable helps to keep social workers around.

“After a period of time, that can really take a toll on them,” Tylka said. “When they have higher caseloads, they're not able to take a break from their work. So, what we can see is we can see turnaround; social workers leaving the field feeling like they can't be successful in their job. That makes it worse for families, because then when a new social worker has to be assigned, we lose ground. We literally use time with lose time with that family.”

"I stay because it's rewarding and I love what I do,” Stephanie Byer said. She is Marathon County’s lead initial assessment social worker. “I love working with children and families. I love going out into the community and educating parents and other professionals on what is safety and how to keep them safe that I couldn't imagine doing anything different."

In Marathon County, initial assessment workers also rotate days on the access line. Byer as the lead initial assessment social worker has management duties as well.

"There's not a typical day in child protection," Byer said.

She allowed 7 Investigates to shadow her on the various types of work she has to do. On any given day, she may meet with a family she’s newly assessing, check in on a family she’s been working with during that 60 day assessment period, go to the hospital to sit with a child who has been suspected of being maltreated, go to school to talk with a child about potential maltreatment, go to court to discuss a case with an attorney or to testify in a CHIPS or Child In Need of Protection case.

"What we do first, especially when we get a case, is we have to look for is the child safe right now? So, it's making that initial face-to-face contact with the child,” she said. “Then we have to look at family dynamics, so when we go into a home, we not only assess why we're there. So, say we got a report of physical abuse, a child had an injury. We assess that situation. How did it happen? And then we also look at child development/child functioning. We look at parenting functioning. We look at, is there alcohol and drug history? Is there mental health history? We talk about discipline. We talk about family practices. Who's there support system? Is there informal support systems that can keep these kids safe without our involvement?"

If the reported abuse or neglect is an emergency need, Byer will respond that day. If it is not, she prefers to schedule a meeting with the whole family. She says seeing physical mannerisms and how the family interacts and talks about their lives tell a lot about how the family functions and the relationships between members.

“You really can learn a lot about family dynamics, like this child said he was scared of mom and the report but he's sitting on mom's lap right now,” Byer explained. She said the majority of families are cooperative with her.

“The majority of the time, we go in there not with, ‘Why did you do this?’ You know, it's, ‘What's going on? Let's talk about this.’ So that's why we don't, you know, bring law enforcement if there's not a crime,” Byer said. “I'm not judging you. I'm not judging your parenting. I'm really here to figure out what happened and, ‘if this happened, how can we make sure it doesn't happen again?’”

She said ensuring kids are safe is her top priority. What she means by “safe,” however, can catch people who are not part of the world of social services by surprise and are guided by state statutes and department policies.

“Safety means that parents are doing what they need to do to make sure that the children's basic needs are met,” she said. Basic needs include that the child is fed, clothed, and is going to school.

“Parents have the ability to discipline their children,” she said. “Now, while some people might not agree with how they discipline, it doesn't mean that it rises to the level of child abuse.”

That includes parents who are drug users. In the case review meeting 7 Investigates sat in on, a case of possible abuse and neglect was reviewed and ultimately screened out.

“In that particular case, there was no indication that parents’ use was affecting their ability to keep their kids safe,” Byer said.

If the parents had been using drugs and leaving drugs where children would be able to have access, that would be considered unsafe. It would also be considered unsafe for the child if the child was not being fed, or taken to school, etc.

Basic needs not met because of poverty, however, is not considered abuse or neglect by state statute. Social workers can refer the family for services or have an ongoing social worker assigned to help the family meet the child’s needs.

While not all reports rise to the level of abuse or neglect, she said she often has to break news to families that how their family functions is not safe for their child.

“In a situation of like a physical abuse, if the child had an injury, we went out we decided that it was not substantiated, so it doesn’t rise to the level of child abuse or neglect, but maybe this family needs some help with learning different discipline techniques,” Byer said. “We have different parent educators here in our department that can go out and work with the family for 60 days.”

She is happy to get families the help they need to ultimately care for their children independently, but that does not always happen quickly and some families need more resources than others.

"Social workers need to have adequate time to work with the families, they need to be able to meet with the children, they need to be able to work with the parents, all the other supports that families have such as relatives, the different people that work with families so they can build a team around that family to support them. And all of that takes a lot of time and resources," Tylka said.

It all depends on the case, child, and family, but a family meeting can take about two hours, a hospital visit can take up to six hours, a sit-down with a child at school can take an hour, a child forensic interview can take half a day, and court proceedings can take a long time too.

CPS workers participating in the state’s study will begin timing their work mid-January to mid-February, 2020. The final workload study report is scheduled to come out in August, 2020.

This story will continue to be updated with county specific information for the counties that responded to 7 Investigates’ request for information.