Rally to support child protection social workers

Child protection social workers Laura Ross and Sara Crotteau serve children and their families.
Child protection social workers Laura Ross and Sara Crotteau serve children and their families.

Child protection social workers say a spike in the number of child abuse and neglect reports in Hennepin County is impossible to deal with and overwhelming.

More than 60 people from child protection in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties rallied Tuesday, joined by probation and parole workers, to call for a supportive work environment, improved training and retention of workers, and lower case sizes. They marched around the Hennepin County Government Center chanting "Twice the caseload, half the safety," then stood in the atrium shouting "Help us help kids" up toward the 24th floor where the county board was meeting.

Hennepin County child protection social worker Brenda Louise leads more than 60 people in a chant at a rally Tuesday, They called on county commissioners to provide better working conditions that will create better results for kids.
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Hennepin County expects to see about 20,000 abuse reports this year, up 2,500 over last year, the Star Tribune reports. That increasing number is causing ripple effects: It’s creating more demand – and bed shortages – in shelters and foster homes. In some cases, children have had to stay in homes with their abusers until a shelter bed opens up – even after a judge has decided they’re not safe there – simply because there’s no place to put them, several workers say.

“It’s totally unacceptable,” says child protection social worker Sara Crotteau. “No one in any level of government would tell you that’s acceptable. If there’s nowhere to take them, I can’t pick them up and take them to my house.”

The situation is aggravated by a well-intended shift in state policy that was meant to keep more kids safe. A series of reforms swept Minnesota following the 2013 death of 4-year-old Eric Dean after numerous maltreatment reports in Pope County.

Workers and lawmakers joined the criticism that DHS was sending too many serious cases to Family Assessment, a voluntary program intended for low-risk cases. The state-wide reforms were designed to ensure that the most serious cases got the needed supervision, and nobody's arguing that's a bad thing: Workers not only applauded the reforms at the time, their recommendations helped result in those changes. 

But several workers say the pendulum has swung too far the other way, causing some unintended consequences: Under the new screening guidelines, too many low-risk cases that would benefit from Family Assessment are shifting over to child protection social workers, who provide more supervision with more serious consequences for families. That’s inflating caseloads and pulling time and attention away from the highest-risk cases.

 “The snowball effect of that is if there’s more investigations, there’s going to be more cases that open,” Crotteau says. “The whole system is completely overloaded on all ends.”

Many workers report they now have 18 cases – nearly double the maximum caseload of 10 recommended by Gov. Mark Dayton’s Child Protection Task Force. Even new workers can have 18 cases by their sixth month, sometimes before they’ve even passed probation, says child protection social worker Laura Ross, who’s vice president of AFSCME Local 34.

Jean Diederich, the president of Local 34, says the cases don’t appear to be weighted either. That means a worker could have a pile of cases with multiple fathers and children, chemical dependency, special needs and a host of other concerns.

“More than anything else, it is so overwhelming,” Diederich says. “They absolutely love their work. They’re so excited. But they’re scared for kids.”

 “It is completely terrifying,” Crotteau says. “The large majority of us are constantly worried about, ‘Are these kids safe? Is my name going to be in the Star Tribune tomorrow because something happens?’ None of us wants to be doing our job this way. We all want time to be with kids and see kids, but it’s just not possible.”

As part of the reforms, the state and Hennepin County together put up several million dollars to hire about 100 more child protection workers and support staff. But the county can’t recruit and hire workers fast enough because turnover is so high. Some workers are even taking voluntary demotions, Ross says.

“There are workers who are leaving without a job to go to, it’s so bad,” Ross says. “There are people leaving after 4, 5, 6 months. A lot of people are transferring out.”

To find enough workers, the county’s talking about reducing applicant requirements from a master’s to a bachelor’s degree, and decreasing the amount of experience required, despite the challenging nature of the job.

People from several Hennepin County departments joined the rally to support child protection workers.
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At the same time the number of reports is rising, the county has shifted some supportive services away from workers. Ross says management redirected the assistants who used to drive clients, help with paperwork and act as another set of eyes on a family, and gave them other work instead. That’s especially problematic for workers like Ross in the Indian Child Welfare Unit who travel all over the state. Paperwork keeps multiplying, too. As just one example, a pre-hearing report for court that used to take 20 minutes now takes four hours.

“Driving takes a lot of time,” Ross says. “Right now I’m doing my own secretarial work, I’m doing my own driving, everything we used to have support for.

A lack of collaborative workspace is another factor. Many child protection workers no longer have desks or set workspaces. They work out of a laptop and a bag. While many say they enjoy being able to work from home, they miss having a place where they can sit by the same co-workers, develop relationships, vent and get advice about their cases.

“People get moved around so much, I couldn’t even say where anybody is, and I wouldn’t know how to find anybody without calling them or emailing them,” Ross says. “When we were all in health services, we were all in our desks. I knew how to find my supervisor. I knew how to find investigators. That’s not basically the case anymore. It’s not supportive.”

Mentoring for new hires is suffering, too.

“We used to be able to take the new workers and bring them around and work together,” Ross says. “We’re so busy. It’s hard to help other people out if they don’t know where we’re going to be.”

Ross and Diederich are hopeful a new plan to regionally cluster workers in a few buildings will help, even though it falls short of providing desks for everyone.

Despite the difficulties, workers remain dedicated to helping children and their families. They say they could achieve their mission more effectively if management took up their suggestions to reduce caseloads and create a supportive working environment:

  1. Revisit screening guidelines so low-risk cases that are appropriate for Family Assessment go there first, freeing workers to concentrate on higher-risk cases. “There really is a happy medium,” Diederich says.
  2. Improve worker training and retention.
  3. Take into consideration workers’ and supervisors’ professional judgment: “It seems unnecessary to keep something open if we don’t have any concerns, especially for six months,” Crotteau says.
  4. Offer Hennepin County workers pay that’s equal to nearby counties.
  5. Provide set desks so people can sit together with the same group of co-workers, but still have the freedom of working from home.
  6. Provide support staff who can drive clients to appointments and supervise parent-child visits.
  7. Simplify and consolidate paperwork.
  8. Locate referral resources in one central location.
  9. Provide more comp time to workers, who are often topping 60 hours a week.

Despite the challenges, 28 years and many swings of the policy pendulum later, Ross says she’s proud of her clients and the changes she sees them make. They get sober, get out of abusive relationships and get their kids back.

A client recently texted that she was crying in gratitude over the furniture Ross helped provide for her new home, and that a job and a car were next on the list. Another former client who was a child when she met him and is now a father himself called to ask for a college recommendation.

“I like the clients, I like the social work,” Ross says. “It’s the stuff we live for."