AZ: CPS Caseloads Skyrocket, Caseworkers Quit; State Policy Keeps Agency Understaffed

September 17th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
A matter of months after Governor Jan Brewer announced a task force to improve the operations of Arizona’s Child Protective Services, the agency is in worse shape than ever.  That may or may not be due to the task force, though.  What’s certain is that the number of cases of alleged child abuse and neglect is skyrocketing.  At the same time, caseworkers are overburdened, resulting in an unprecedented number simply walking away from their jobs.
That combination of rising caseloads and declining numbers of caseworkers means the system is utterly incapable of properly looking after the welfare of children at risk for abuse and neglect by parents and caregivers.  Read the latest here (Arizona Daily Star, 9/8/12).

But if you thought anyone in Arizona state government intends to address the problem, you’d be wrong.  That’s because nowhere in the state’s plans or budget is there the intention or the money to hire enough caseworkers to meet state and federal caseload standards.  Indeed, Arizona has never in its history hired enough caseworkers to meet the standards it sets for itself, and it doesn’t intend to start.  At present, the state needs to hire about 200 new caseworkers just to meet the number of caseworkers budgeted for.  But it’s almost 500 caseworkers short of the number needed to meet state and national standards.  There are no plans to even attempt to hire that number of caseworkers.

Given that, it’s predictable as the sunrise that, even if those 200 caseworkers are hired and trained (and how attractive a job is it, given the agency’s almost unbroken stream of bad publicity?), they’ll be overwhelmed with cases they won’t be able to properly service and more will walk away from an extremely stressful job that pays too little and asks too much.  The bottom line will be, once again, children neglected, injured and killed at the hands of parents, foster parents and others.

The most recent state report on CPS shows nearly one in three front-line workers has quit this year, according to the Arizona Republic. The number of children in foster care also continues to rise, hitting a record 13,497 in July. That’s a 22 percent increase over the same time last year.

The report comes despite efforts by a governor’s task force set up to help solve ongoing problems at the agency.

Officials with the state Department of Economic Security, which oversees CPS, said they hope new initiatives will help attract and retain more qualified caseworkers and eventually lighten caseloads.

But they acknowledged that a deluge of more than 100 new cases a day is a struggle to manage. Caseloads that can be as high as twice the state and national standard led dozens of workers to leave CPS in the first six months of 2012…

CPS hired 215 new caseworkers through June, but 167 left during that same period. There are additional caseworkers in training who are not yet qualified to handle cases. An additional 27 positions are vacant.

That leaves Arizona more than 200 short of its 970 budgeted positions and 468 caseworkers short of what it would take to meet caseload standards, according to CPS data.

There’s another problem that goes along with the shocking lack of caseworkers.  One important thing child welfare agencies attempt to do when a child is taken from a parent is to achieve permanency, not only of foster care, but of caseworkers too.  That is, they want to place the child in as few new home settings as possible and have as few caseworkers overseeing the child as possible.  Children placed in foster care do better if they can stay with a single family and not get shuttled from one to another.  They also do better with a single caseworker than they do with more than one.  Children, particularly those who’ve just been taken from their parents, need to have a sense of permanence, and moving from one foster family to another is not the way to accomplish that.  Likewise, a single caseworker can get to know a child and its needs better than several successive ones can.

But Arizona’s astonishingly high turnover rate for caseworkers tends to accomplish the opposite.  Caseworkers moving into and out of the system mean children never develop the type of relationship they need.  Adults who have aged out of foster care often report that neither they nor anyone at the agency knew who their caseworker was, so that, if the child needed emergency attention, a question answered or to make a complaint about a foster family, he/she had no one to talk to.  Likewise, studies show that children with multiple caseworkers tend to be moved more than those with just one.  And children in multiple families are at greater risk for abuse, neglect and the administration of psychotropic medication than others in foster care.

So it’s fair to say that the above is the policy of the State of Arizona.  Too few caseworkers, too high a turnover rate, too many children in foster care who move too often, don’t have their needs met by caseworkers and are subject to higher incidences of abuse and neglect in foster care.  Those consequences are well-known to experts in the child welfare field and they are the predictable outcome of Arizona’s conscious decision to understaff CPS.  That means it’s the policy of the Brewer government as it has been of those that have preceded hers.

Because child-welfare work is difficult and draining, state agencies typically expect turnover rates that average 20 to 22 percent, said Nancy Dickinson, director of the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work.

Arizona’s turnover is concerning, Dickinson said, and the consequences could be dire as families deal with a parade of new caseworkers.

“It’s kind of like a snowball effect,” she said. “Once turnover rates start increasing, workers don’t stay around because their caseloads go up.”

A California study showed that high turnover rates, considered 30 percent and above, led to higher rates of families coming back into the child-welfare system with new reports, as well as lengthier stays in foster care for children.

“It really changes the way families are treated,” Dickinson said of caseworker turnover.

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