As the number of foster children in Georgia soars, a state agency continues to struggle with a high turnover rate among the caseworkers who help these kids.

Georgia DFCS assigns each foster child a caseworker, and the agency says the annual turnover rate for these workers is about 37 percent. DFCS is recruiting now to fill about 170 positions for child welfare case managers.

The turnover rate among the caseworkers, says a DFCS spokeswoman, comes from several factors, including the departure of many for jobs with less stress and better pay. The starting salary for a child welfare case manager is $28,005.

The workers also cite high caseloads and burnout, said Susan Boatwright, the DFCS spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, the number of Georgia children in state foster care has jumped from 7,600 in September 2013 to more than 13,200 now. That increase over three years is the highest in the nation.

In a related matter, state officials reached an agreement Monday involving a longstanding court order to improve its child protection system. The accord, approved by a federal judge, requires the state to reduce caseloads and stabilize staff turnover, according to reports.

Boatwright of DFCS said the average workload for a caseworker is now 19. That figure has decreased in the past two years after DFCS added an additional 628 positions, from increased funding in Gov. Nathan Deal’s recent budgets

“We estimate caseloads would be much closer to the 1:15 ratio [the national child welfare caseload ratio recommendation] if all funded positions were filled and carrying an equal caseload,’’ Boatwright told GHN in an email.

Kathy Colbenson, CEO of Chris 180, a nonprofit children’s and family services organization, said Tuesday that recent hiring of caseworkers has bolstered the child welfare system.

Nevertheless, she said, the caseworker job “is very high-stress. The lives of kids are at stake.” It’s a low-paying job, Colbenson added, and there are heavy documentation demands on caseworkers.

DFCS has been under scrutiny for the past few years, and not only because of workloads and pay issues. The horrific deaths of two children, which led to criminal cases, brought more public and legislative attention to the program.

Many of the DFCS problems were linked to funding cuts. From 2006 to 2010, state funding for child welfare dropped by 39 percent.

Meanwhile, the recent surge in the number of foster children stems from several factors, Colbenson said. She cited a statewide hotline to report suspected abuse that has succeeded in helping protect kids who are in dangerous situations.

Another factor is the increase in prescription drug abuse, which she said “is a huge factor in children being neglected – sometimes profoundly.”

“This is not just a child welfare problem, it is a mental health/substance abuse problem, a poverty problem, an education problem, an employment problem,” Colbenson said. “Georgia does not invest enough in mental health/substance abuse treatment or in child welfare. The answer is not just more money – the answer is a strategic coordinated effort’’ across state agencies and the provider community that focuses on measuring outcomes for these children.

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News.

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