November 22, 2014

Elyria
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Union chief: Children Services caseworkers burned out

ELYRIA — The head of the union for Lorain County Children Services caseworkers says a 2010 change in how the agency handles its cases is burning out the workers tasked with keeping children safe.

Angie Martinez said caseworkers are complaining about their workload “all the time,” and that the union has taken steps to try and address the issue.

“I think this is causing more burnout for my workers,” she said. “There are only eight to nine cases, but it’s what you have to do in those eight to nine cases.”

In January 2010, Lorain County Children Services switched to a single worker model, combining its intake and protective services unit. The structure allows one caseworker to work continuously with a family instead of splitting up the work between an intake worker, who receives the initial report, and a protective worker, who follows through after the report is substantiated.

Crystal Ward Allen, executive director of the Public Children Services Agency of Ohio, called Lorain County’s approach “innovative” in that only a few Children Services agencies in Ohio have experimented with the structure.

Huron County Children Services also combined its departments about two years ago, according to Jeff Felton, program administrator for the agency. Felton said the change was successful.

“It is what’s best for the client and what’s best for the child,” he said. “I do believe, personally, that it’s best to have one person involved in your life.”

Felton said the change did not seem to affect his workers’ workload, but he said some restructuring had to be done due to various time limits within cases. Workers with an ongoing case could be bypassed when new cases come in, according to Felton.

The union head for Huron County Job and Family Services could not be reached for comment on how the change affected its caseworkers.

But Patti Jo-Burtnett, spokeswoman for Lorain County Children Services, said that while the change influenced the type of work a caseworker does, the agency does not believe it influenced the amount of time each case takes to address.

In an exit interview, Stephen Silva, the caseworker on the case of Erica Perez, a Lorain mother with a long history of involvement with Children Services, Silva urged the agency to “hire more quickly. Need a full staff to take the pressure off.”

Police said they were called to Perez’s home on Long Avenue because she was drunk and making a scene with her neighbors. They found seven of Perez’s children in a filthy home that contained little food and had only a single, crib-sized mattress in it. The children, authorities said, were dirty, and the 1 year old was wearing a days-old diaper and covered with peanut butter and feces.

The case turned a spotlight on the agency — Perez’s children had been taken away from her in 2008 and returned a few months later, and reports of the agency’s involvement with her date back to 2001 — and an internal probe was launched about how it handled it.

As a result, Silva resigned July 12, his supervisor, Nancy Griffins, was suspended for two weeks without pay, and the agency promised to take steps to do better in handling situations like the Perez case in the future.

Burtnett said caseloads at the agency are reasonable, and that the agency considers the complexity of a case when assigning them to caseworkers.

She said when Children Services receives a report, the reports are “screened in” and then investigated. Once the reports are deemed substantiated, the case continues to the protective services unit where services are put into place to help the family, according to Burtnett.

Burtnett said the intake process takes 30 to 45 days to complete, and the hours spent on each case depend on the amount of people in the home and risk factors associated with each case. She added that there are no set hours.

Felton said Huron County Children Services caseworkers handle an average of 10 cases and may have trouble handling more.

Ward Allen said there are no federal or state laws regarding caseloads, and the Public Children Services Agency of Ohio is re-working its guidelines about them. She said the average caseload for an Ohio caseworker is between 10 and 11 cases, but some agencies, like Cuyahoga County Children Services, work an average of 15 to 16 cases per worker.

Cuyahoga County Children Services spokeswoman Mary Louise Madigan said the agency’s intake and ongoing services units are separated because of the amount of cases the agency receives. The agency received 16,269 referrals in 2011, 6,682 of which were investigated.

According to Burtnett, Lorain County employees work an average of eight to nine cases. Martinez, however, said those numbers may be much higher.

“They can go up to 14 to 15 cases … They speak a lot in averages,” Martinez said, adding that the workload has led to turnover within the agency.

In 2011, Lorain County Children Services received 3,903 referrals of suspected maltreatment of a child. Many of the cases do not make it past the intake stage, according to the agency’s 2011 annual report.

Of the 3,903 referrals, 2,673 were considered substantive enough for a caseworker to investigate, and 746 of those cases were substantiated and continued through the protective services unit.

Lorain County Children Services has 70 caseworkers, 51 of whom work in the intake and protective services unit. If intake and protective service workers were to receive 746 cases in 2012, the average caseload would be around 14 cases per worker.

Burtnett said caseworkers are not working 746 cases continuously, however. She said some cases can last two to three months and some can take a year to be resolved.

“Some (cases) are done in days,” she said. “They don’t all come in at the same time.”

Burtnett said the agency’s structure change has proved beneficial for families.

“I think it has had a positive impact on children and families,” she said. “We wanted to increase the continuity for our families, and we wanted to reduce the time frames of our unit from one group to another group.”

Martinez acknowledged the change may give children “a chance to bond with caseworkers,” but she said the worker’s caseload must be considered as well.

“Why isn’t it happening anywhere else?” she said of the new structure. “If this is happening in other agencies, it’s because they only have 20 workers.”

Ward Allen said other agencies “look up” to Lorain County’s practices as the agency has always done well in federal reviews. She said combining the departments would likely be beneficial to the agency, and other agencies may later follow suit.

“Lorain County is known throughout the state as one of the star performers,” she said.

Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123 or cmiller@chroniclet.com.