Social worker churn undercuts Washington’s foster care system

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Photo by Paul Joseph Brown.

Despite having a master’s degree and a supervisory job with Washington state’s Children’s Administration, social worker Tanya Copenhaver struggled to make ends meet for her daughter Cassidy. She ultimately left the state agency for a hospital job – and increased her salary 30 percent.

Tanya Copenhaver followed in her father’s and grandmother’s footsteps by becoming a social worker for Washington state’s Children’s Administration, a difficult but fulfilling calling she never expected to give up.

During 15 years of working in the foster care system, on a job considered among the hardest in the state, she worked her way up to supervisor. But even with a master’s degree and a management position, the single mom struggled to pay rent and daycare. She and her daughter ate at her mother’s house to save money.

Last year, Copenhaver finally left the vocation she cherished to take a post at a Pierce County hospital – with a 30 percent pay raise.

“I loved my job,” Copenhaver said. “Even after 15 years I didn’t feel burnt out, and I still have a passion for the work. But I left because I couldn’t support myself and my daughter on my salary as a supervisor.”

Copenhaver’s decision has been mirrored by many state social workers, who say they were driven away by lousy pay, a toxic workplace climate and excessive workloads, InvestigateWest discovered in a lengthy investigation for KCTS 9 and Crosscut.

Turnover among Children’s Administration social workers runs at 20 percent a year statewide and has been as high as 30 percent in King County, the state says. That drains the agency of collective knowledge, distracts managers with constant hiring and training, and hampers its ability to help vulnerable foster children and their families. And all of that ends up costing the state – and therefore the taxpayers.

The churn has a huge and potentially devastating impact on kids’ futures. According to one prominent study from Wisconsin, a child whose case is overseen by one worker has a 75 percent chance of being placed in a permanent and stable home within a year. Those odds drop to 18 percent when a child goes through two caseworkers in a year, and they plummet to a low of 0.1 percent with six or seven case managers. Yet some foster parents told InvestigateWest that kids they’ve cared for have gotten a new caseworker every month in some cases.

“They’re cycling through workers so quickly, it’s terrible for the workers, the management, and the kids and foster parents who are having to deal with a new person,” said Lauren Hubbard, a Seattle foster mom. “We changed workers with our adopted daughter four times within a month.”

Caseloads are often two or three times the recommended level, leaving workers too busy to support foster parents, which contributed to a loss of nearly one in five foster homes between 2008 and 2015. That only adds to the system’s woes, as social workers are then forced to babysit children in their offices all day and even stay up all night watching them in hotels.

“In many respects the reason for the drop in foster homes is the same reason we’re having difficulty retaining staff – it’s a ‘Catch-22’ situation,” Jennifer Strus, the head of the Children’s Administration, said in an interview. “The complaints that reach my level from foster parents generally revolve around foster parents not feeling supported. They try to reach the worker, and the worker isn’t able to call them back. That’s directly related to the worker’s workload, which is directly related to the amount of funding we get from the Legislature.”

Underfunded, underpaid

The state’s inadequate funding of foster care and low salaries for social workers are contributing to the high turnover.

The Children’s Administration has only now clawed its way back to its budget’s pre-recession levels eight years ago. In constant dollars, which takes inflation into account, the budget is still less, at $1.18 billion, including $661.9 million of state funding.

During the recession, the administration lost about 16 percent of its workforce, or 467 employees, which exacerbated the problems, as those who remained had to cover for those who left. Meanwhile, the number of children entering foster care has increased amid the opioid crisis, after reaching historic lows around 2012.

Photo by Paul Joseph Brown

In Tacoma, Children’s Administration social workers are located in a Department of Social and Health Services office on State Street. About one out of five social workers leave the Children’s Administration every year.

Salaries for child-welfare social workers – many of whom have master’s degrees – start at $34,284 a year, or $16.42 an hour, and top out at $58,548, or $28.04 an hour. And the top salary is more than $20,000 less than the same position at a place like Western State Hospital, said Sean Dannen, the general government strategic campaign coordinator for the Washington Federation of State Employees.

Workers in high-cost areas like King County are paid the same as those in less expensive parts of the state. They also have the same workloads as counterparts in the rest of the state, even though the Puget Sound region’s infamous traffic jams can keep them out much longer for their mandated home visits.

The state aims to boost salaries for social workers across the board next year, and the Children’s Administration is trying to get child-welfare workers’ positions classified differently to allow raises to be awarded, which could improve retention. It’s also streamlining processes to reduce the strain on workers.

The state’s lack of funding has created “impossible-to-solve problems with retention that are grounded in salaries,” said Dee Wilson, who worked for the Children’s Administration for 26 years and now works to improve child welfare programs nationally. It will take a decade to walk the salaries back up to a reasonable level and “to create an organizational environment where people would actually want to work,” he said.

Dannen, from the union, said he has been working for the past two years to help the 1,200 social workers the union represents at the Children’s Administration “fix the turnover, the workload, the whole crisis that’s been going on.”

In addition to the low pay, workers get burned out by the heavy workload at the Children’s Administration and either get higher-paying jobs for private contractors working for the department or find positions in other divisions of the Department of Social and Health Services that get paid the same but are less stressful, he said.

Working in foster care is often a “thankless job,” Copenhaver said. When a child in the state’s care is abused, the public points a finger at the social worker and the administration, more so even than at the perpetrators themselves.

“They’re encouraging more people to get their master’s degrees, which they should, but then it opens up a huge opportunity for them to go to other agencies that have less stress, less negative publicity and more money,” Copenhaver said.

The union has been pushing the agency for a couple of years to increase salaries, Dannen said, but instead the department asked the Legislature for permission to hire more workers, thinking that would be more politically palatable. Lawmakers approved another 56 positions earlier this year, but so many people have left that there are 40 vacancies this month, he said.

“It has not fixed the problem,” he said. “It isn’t helping just to have more people trained and then they leave in six months.”

It will cost the state $7.1 million in training costs alone to replace the social workers who left last year, state estimates show.

Next July, DSHS social workers will get a 16 percent pay increase – as long as the Legislature ratifies the contract the governor agreed to – but that still won’t be enough to attract qualified caseworkers, Dannen said. The pending raises are expected to cost $23.6 million over two years.

Harsh workplace climate

Even if the state does raise salaries, “if staff aren’t treated well, they’re not going to stay,” Copenhaver said. The problem has been particularly bad in the Puget Sound region, with workers not feeling valued and leaders making decisions that are “more about power and control than about best practice,” she said.

Social workers interviewed by InvestigateWest – most of whom requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation by the state for speaking out – tell of a toxic and punitive environment, with an increasing number of investigations into their actions. One said it has become a rite of passage to be under investigation in King County. There’s a systemic lack of appreciation, they say, and the job itself is traumatic enough without the added stress of the department’s negativity and the constant fear of being investigated.

The administration has gotten rid of “some bad leaders” in recent years to try to improve the culture, Dannen said. But the high turnover “makes it difficult for even effective leadership to get much done, when you’re just in training mode.”

The Kent office, with about 100 workers, has had a particularly hard time staying fully staffed. One worker stationed there said certain classifications of positions had suffered 100 percent turnover within a year. Most of the Kent employees have less than a year of service, Dannen said. The department recently split the office in half, under two separate administrators, to try to ease tensions and stem the turnover.

“Any organization will tell you the stability of their staff is key to their success,” said Connie Lambert-Eckel, the Children’s Administration director of field operations.

Part of the problem is also a cultural change as the workforce transitions toward the new generation of millennials, the administration says. While younger workers bring a lot to the table, they also view the work environment differently and are ill-equipped to handle some of the high-stress, difficult situations involved in child welfare, said Strus and Lambert-Eckel.

“They walk into the first case they have to investigate, and it’s a cockroach-infested house, kids with sores, feces all over the place, and they don’t last,” Strus said.

Heavy caseloads

The workloads can be daunting as well.

When a worker gets hired, she or he first goes through a couple months of training before slowly adding cases, Dannen said. They may have just five cases for a while, which means a more experienced colleague has to carry the rest – sometimes doing visitations, court hearings and paperwork for as many as 30, 40 or more kids. The average caseload doesn’t show the real picture, he said, because it includes new workers with zero cases along with experienced workers carrying 47.

Social workers say a caseload of 30 children only allows them to spend about an hour per week per child – or far less, because that time gets burned up quickly when there are court cases to prepare for and testify in. Some kids inevitably fall through the cracks.

The national recommended caseload is 12, Strus said. Washington state was legally required to limit the burden to 18 by a 2004 class-action lawsuit settlement, but that is no longer being enforced. When new workers start easing their way up to a dozen cases, and are struggling with even that many, they look around and can’t imagine handling two or three times that load, so they leave, Dannen said.

A high percentage of social workers now are fresh out of college, Dannen said.

“When you go to an office, it’s like everybody’s in their mid-20s, and then there’s a group of folks that are like 50 and above, but there isn’t much in the middle, because people just aren’t staying,” he said. There are some offices where the most senior person has one year of experience, Strus acknowledged.

The social workers’ heavy workloads affect the agency’s ability to support foster parents.

“It’s not that the social workers are bad people; they simply have no way to do their job well,” said Shannon Mead, founder of the Foster Innovation Lab. “They don’t have time to do everything they have to do, and so what gets dropped is things like notifying foster parents of changes to schedules, for example.”

The first survey of 90 parents by the Foster Innovation Lab, which Mead founded in October, showed that problems with social workers and communication were key. When asked to tell of their biggest challenge, 35 percent of the parents referred to caseworker-related issues such as turnover or lack of information about court hearings, child health care and the like.

The state seeks solutions

While waiting for the Legislature to act on increasing worker salaries, the agency is experimenting with other ways to stem the crippling turnover.

To better prepare newcomers for the rigors of casework, it is expanding a college internship program and trainee program that aims to avoid the “system shock” faced by many hired out of graduate school, Lambert-Eckel said.

“Like a farm club team in baseball, you grow your own,” Strus said. “But even those who have been here awhile are frustrated, because the workload is too high. We do exit surveys, and the reasons are not a shock to us.”

While the state can “never shut the front door” and stop taking care of children due to a staff shortage, Strus said, it can find ways to reduce the workload to free up caseworkers’ time.

The state was the first in the nation to offer its foster care workers tablets and smart phones for use in the field earlier this year, according to Strus. That means they no longer have to go back to the office to return calls and enter information into the case-management system.

The agency is also analyzing its workflows and schedules for efficiencies, and it’s trying to reduce duplicate efforts and provide more clerical support. Strus also recently mandated training sessions for supervisors, recognizing that many employees who leave a job do so because of problems with their direct manager.

Money and workplace issues aside, some say the administration itself needs to be overhauled to make lasting change.

Mandy Hewitson was a social worker in Washington and then in Colorado, working with foster kids and adoptive families for 11 years. She says she was struck with how different the systems were, in particular how long Washington kids languish in foster care before being returned to their families or adopted. According to federal data, kids who exited foster care in Colorado in 2013 had a median length of stay of 9.2 months. In Washington, that figure was almost double, at 18.1 months.

That has a direct impact on what Hewitson does now, working with women and girls who have been caught up in sex trafficking. Many are recruited from the foster care system, where they’ve lost strong attachments to adults, she says.

“I really don’t think it’s just that the caseworkers are understaffed or underpaid, because that’s everywhere,” Hewitson said. “There’s always money in the equation, but how kids and foster parents are being treated in Washington is pretty deplorable.”

Copenhaver said that although it was hard for her to leave the Children’s Administration, the decision ended up being easy because of what the higher salary allowed her to do for her daughter Cassidy – including gymnastics class and a little house with a yard in Puyallup. She’s less stressed now and has more opportunities to move up – in fact, she started a new position at the hospital in late November, working with in-patient adults. She misses working with kids but said her new job opened up “a whole new world” for her.

“We still eat dinner at my mom’s all the time, but now we don’t have to,” Copenhaver said. “Now I have food in my own cupboards and freezer, and we could eat at home, but we go over there just because we like to.”

ALLEGRA ABRAMO contributed to this story.

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This reporting was supported by InvestigateWest donors, the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Satterberg Foundation.

7 thoughts on “Social worker churn undercuts Washington’s foster care system

  1. For the record; WA is making no efforts towards retention. Three workers leaving the Department in Vancouver this month alone offered to stay on part time to assist in the transition and training process of incoming staff…while argument we can’t replace workers if they are here exists, we are down 30%, a few part timers will not impact hiring, which is also not happening.

    Additionally, if you are desperate to retain, basic lifestyle aides like alternate schedules shouldn’t be a battle; they should be a given.

    And, if the LAW is a cap of 18, why the hell is every worker in Vancouver at 27 or more kids with zero conversation about alternative options. This law doesn’t say an average of 18…it’s 18 kids maximum per person, period!

    Let’s also not forget the courts impact; politics override children’s well being constantly in DCFS. When I pointed out last week how by not listening to a predominantly absent parent scream at me all week on the phone, I actually had time to talk to “my kids”, I was lectured… The kids are literally the last concern at the end of the day. Sorry parents, foster parents, and legal counsel; the kids get my final CFWS days.

  2. I worked for Children s Administration and it isn’t just the low wages, it is the poisonous atmosphere of management, who when criticized think of reasons to investigate the social workers and make their lives hell. In King Count no one was allow to even question one regional manger without severe retribution. Then when that one left one of his cronies that he put in position took over and the poison continued. I can only speak for office I worked in and moral was horrible and if you questioned an action by the regional manager, you could count on having a miserable work life or worse. It’s not the money, it’s the way the Social Workers are treated, and in King County they are not treated well. They have had some of the best workers in the state, and they have driven them away.

  3. As a former DSHS social worker in Kent – wrote a poem: Orders from Headquarters – expressing the frustration of poor management! Get good managers, care for kids, be wise!! Seems so easy to lead with honesty & putting kids first!

  4. Hello, I am a Social Worker and worked in social work for 38 years. I worked in both El Paso County Colorado and King County Washington and am pleased to see an article about how difficult it is to work in that system especially for the very reasons you just noted. I loved working as a CPS Worker and Child Welfare and I learned the very same things everyone else learned. I can make a better living in the hospital arena. I was proud of my ability to be effective, but could not be as effective as I wanted to because the caseloads were too high and I would have to move on from a case I felt I was working well with and moving on to the next crisis. I have reflected on cases I had worked on and thought I should of done this or that to make this case more safe but you just identified why I was not able to be more effective. The last time I read a write up like this it was not so complete. It’s been sometime since an article like this had been written and I thought I wonder whether those being interview feel comfortable speaking more clearly about it. I was amazed how people who are running things will retaliate if you speak up. While reading this I am thinking they promised raises then and that did not happen. When there was a raise it would be between 3%-5% over 3-5 years. Thank you for your thorough investigation. I validates more than just CA. It validates those caseworkers who had to walk away because of investigations or burn out and the sadness one experiences when they have to leave something they loved doing.

  5. DSHS on Graham in Seattle is horrible they are allowing bullying in the workplace and Supervisor not qualified to be in job lots of nepotism