Yesterday, Voices for Children Policy Coordinator Juliet Summers testified on LR 513, which examines workforce issues within the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Voices for Children testified on the need to ensure that case managers and probation officers have an appropriate number of cases, provide more support for the child welfare workers, and increase state funding to achieve these goals. You can read our entire LR 513 Testimony below.
Nebraska children coming into the care of the state through our child welfare and juvenile justice systems deserve a system structured and funded to promote a thoughtful yet timely response. Our case managers and probation officers are the front line of service to our state’s youth, and we depend upon them to use careful judgment and build strong relationships with children and families to promote the best outcomes. The caseload and responsibilities we demand, as well as the support, supervision and training we offer, to these dedicated public servants can make all the difference for Nebraska’s youth.
It hardly needs to be said that creating a stable, supported, highly qualified workforce is a complex issue. Computing appropriate caseload and workload is just one piece of the puzzle, and much more than a simple numerical equation. Other puzzle pieces include, but are not limited to:
Streamlining requirements placed on front line workers: In addition to the direct client work of meeting with families, making referrals and recommendations, and attending court hearings, case managers and probation officers in Nebraska may also report to LB 1184 teams, the Foster Care Review Office, or even the Office of the Inspector General or the Governor’s office. In efforts to better protect and support children in care, as a state we have continued to add reporting and notification requirements. This is all to the good, but it has to be factored into workload if we want the primary role of the worker to be the child’s care and protection. Nebraska is certainly not alone in this; national estimates of workload time suggest only 20-35% is spent on direct client contact or collateral contact. In efforts to better protect and support children nationally, workers are “increasingly expected to do more assessments, diligent searches, notifications, visits, team meetings, plans, referrals, court testimonies, and documentation.” On the child welfare side, a possible statutory change to consider on this front would be to count court-involved cases per child, instead of per family, regardless of whether the children reside in or out of the home. In-home versus out-of-home is not a perfect proxy for the complexity of the case or family’s needs, and the worker is still be required to make individualized recommendations, referrals, permanency plans, for each child in the home. This could also unintentionally incentivize movement toward out-of-home placement in borderline cases, as the complexity of the case will remain the same, but the worker’s ongoing caseload will decrease when a child is removed to an out-of-home placement.
Investing in our workforce: We need to make sure as a state that we are adequately funding our systems to attract and retain the most qualified candidates. The primary set of recommendations from the Children’s Commission’s Workforce Workgroup regard bringing salaries in line with regional averages and offering greater student loan forgiveness, particularly for workers taking employment in underserved areas of the state. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 Nebraska’s mean wage for child & family social workers was $39,440, lower than nearly all of our surrounding states: Iowa ($43,140), Kansas ($40,810), South Dakota ($39,580), Colorado ($47,960), and Wyoming ($45,130). The national mean wage for child & family social workers employed by state government (excluding schools and hospitals) was $45,730. The same survey estimated that Nebraska’s probation officers & correctional treatment specialists received a mean wage of $40,360, which also fell below most of our neighboring states: South Dakota ($40,820), Wyoming ($46,880), Colorado ($56,540), and Iowa ($66,740). The national annual mean wage was $53,930. Given the Workforce Workgroup’s findings that the average tenure for a child welfare worker in Nebraska is only 3.19 years, and the cost of training a replacement is between $30,000- $36,000, lifting salaries should be seen as an investment rather than a fiscal hit.
Supporting the workforce through adequate training, support, and supervision: National research does not clearly link high caseloads with turnover; rather, turnover may be more likely related to worker support systems to reduce administrative burdens and manage the secondary traumatic stress of working with traumatized children. Other states have seen progress by making counseling available to front line workers to ameliorate the effects of secondary traumatic stress, reducing administrative headaches through modern technology, and offering the flexibility of reduced work-week schedules or telework. For instance, New Hampshire has created telework units comprised of workers with advanced experience. Staff are given materials necessary (laptop, smartphone, etc.) and access to a secure server to upload case information and communicate with supervisors on cases. Employees in the units experienced a better balance of field time and paperwork, fewer distractions, increased communication with the supervisor, increased sense of team membership, less travel in some cases, greater job satisfaction, increased efficiency, and lower turnover.
Increasing focus and targeting funding on prevention: Finally, Nebraska must continue to decrease the children coming into state care overall, through continued emphasis on preventive efforts. The best way to decrease our state worker caseloads is to continue and amplify our state funding and support for evidence-based preventive approaches like alternative response in child welfare, and on the probation side, by encouraging the expansion of community-based resources and diversion programs in all our counties.
Thank you to the Committee for all your time and work to protect Nebraska’s children, and to Senator Howard for bringing this interim study examining a difficult and important issue.