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DFCS disciplinary records show child safety challenges

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DFCS

A DFCS worker last year failed to inspect the living conditions in a Gwinnett County home where children under state supervision lived. The home was later found “in a deplorable condition [with] drugs and drug paraphernalia in the home and the water was off,” state records say. “The children were not being supervised.”

The worker received “a memorandum of concern and expectations” from the state Division of Family and Children Services.

A second DFCS worker failed to make timely contact with a couple who lived with their grandchildren in Newton County. “An infant included in this sibling group passed away on November 5, 2013,’’ state records show. “The children still had not been seen in this placement at the time of the child’s death.”

The DFCS worker received a “written reprimand and final warning.”

A third DFCS worker also received a written reprimand after failing to make contact with a Glynn County child who was reportedly not being properly fed by her teenage mother. The child was taken to the hospital “due to serious injury.’’

The three cases were among state records of disciplinary actions against Georgia DFCS workers in 2013. The records were obtained by GHN through an Open Records request.

A GHN analysis of disciplinary actions around the state found many employees received multiple chances – through strongly worded criticisms –to improve their performance before facing termination. They were given conferences, work plans, attendance plans and memoranda of concern before being handed a written reprimand and final warning.

The disciplinary records show many children in a variety of potentially dangerous situations. They also show DFCS workers juggling many cases simultaneously.

Child deaths shocked state

For years, DFCS has been an agency under pressure, burdened by high caseloads, stagnant pay, and low morale among its workers.

In recent months, though, Georgia’s child welfare system has drawn tougher scrutiny and harsher criticism, particularly after the gruesome deaths of 10-year-old Emani Moss and 12-year-old Eric Forbes in 2013.

The resulting fallout helped lead to increased state hiring of caseworkers and Gov. Nathan Deal’s creation of a council to review the child welfare system, as well as a legislative effort to privatize child welfare services.

A Department of Human Services spokeswoman last week said through an email statement that the current disciplinary process improves DFCS worker performance.

“Working with an employee through additional training or monitoring after identifying a performance issue has proven to be an effective way to increase an employee’s skill level and influence future decision-making,” said the spokeswoman, Ravae Graham, in an email to GHN.

Human Services also acknowledged there are fewer caseworkers now handling a surge in the number of child abuse reports.

DFCS currently has 1,962 frontline workers and 409 supervisors working in child welfare. Five years ago, Georgia had 2,228 frontline workers.

The demand for state help, meanwhile, is growing. DFCS said last week that since a 24-hour central intake line debuted, the agency has received significantly more referrals of abuse and neglect of children. In September 2013, the agency received 5,124 reports of child abuse in Georgia. This past September, that number was 8,572.

Earlier this year, a state report found the deaths of children whose families had DFCS involvement rose to 180 in 2013 from 152 the year before, an 18 percent increase.

(State officials and others, though, have urged caution in making direct comparisons with the figures. Most states are seeing increases, and are attributing the higher totals to better data collection, improved collaboration among agencies, better reporting on deaths, and increased interest from the community.)

Complaints over pay, conditions

Starting pay for entry-level DFCS workers is about $28,000 a year, for work in such categories as child abuse and neglect investigations, foster care, and family support.

A recent survey of workers found that about 90 percent with less than six months of tenure said they were somewhat or extremely satisfied with their jobs. But for workers with more tenure, just 40 percent said they were satisfied.

One major complaint involved a lack of raises – or even cost-of-living adjustments – for many years, the survey showed.

And two-thirds said they were sometimes concerned for their personal safety when working in the field.

The same percentage said that they were at least somewhat likely to look for a job outside of DFCS in the coming year.

This past summer, Gov. Deal authorized the hiring of an additional 103 DFCS staff statewide, beyond the 175 additional positions included in the state budget. The agency says it has a commitment from Deal to hire several hundred more staff over the next three years, with the goal of case managers having no more than 15 cases each.

Earlier this year, GHN reported some workers had caseloads of up to 100 or more in metro Atlanta counties – an extremely high number, experts said.

And just last week, DFCS chief Bobby Cagle ordered mandatory overtime for DFCS child protective services investigators to prevent a major backlog of child safety investigations.

Child Protective Services “was in a state of crisis” at the beginning of 2014, says Karl Lehman, CEO of Childkind, a nonprofit that serves children with complex medical challenges or developmental disabilities.

The crisis atmosphere followed a media and public firestorm in 2013 over the deaths of Emani Moss and Eric Forbes, two cases that led to criminal charges against relatives.

Disturbing lapses

State records of disciplinary actions in DFCS in 2013 include the firing of a Gwinnett County worker and the demotion of two others; and the termination of two Cobb County employees and the demotion of two others.

Emani died in Gwinnett, and Eric was under DFCS supervision in Cobb.

The records of disciplinary actions, including the firings and demotions, did not name any of the children involved in the cases.

A total of seven employees were fired or terminated in 2013, the state records show.

Inadequate documentation – occasionally to the point of no documentation – was the most often cited problem among DFCS worker disciplinary actions.

The accuracy of workers’ records of home visits is essential when dealing with the court system, says Lehman of Childkind, which supervises some caseworkers. The documentation also ensures that children are getting services they need and that the state is focused on their well-being, he adds.

Many DFCS employees were cited for failure to make regular contact with families, or for not completing visits as assigned.

Others were cited for unprofessional behavior or chronic absenteeism. At least two were disciplined for misrepresenting facts in cases. Violations included not coming to work on time and aggressive behavior in the office.

In several cases, DFCS caseworkers did not complete quick follow-ups when there were alarming reports of abuse. One case involved a child who suffered a cigarette burn, another a child who had a black eye.

A caseworker in Houston County failed to follow through with an October interview and exam with a child who reported possible sexual abuse. As of Oct. 25, no contact has been made with the child, state records show.

An Effingham County home chosen as a “safety resource’’ for children was discovered to be the same home where DFCS had removed children from an adult caregiver on two separate occasions and had to transfer permanent custody of the children to a relative.

DFCS workers closed a case without observing a family in their Richmond County home. “There were present dangers identified due to domestic violence against the birth father and a ‘no contact’ order,’’ state records say. “The birth father was placed back in the home without services to assist the family or proper assessment to ensure the children were safe.”

Making workers better

Through the steps of the disciplinary process, a caseworker “can learn valuable lessons and become a valuable caseworker,’’ Lehman says.

With all that a caseworker is asked to do, he says, “it’s a very challenging job even in the best of circumstances.”

Lehman adds that high DFCS turnover and low worker morale should concern the Georgia General Assembly. Funding the program properly is critical, he says. Child protection has suffered, he says, “because Georgia has not invested sufficient resources.”

Gov. Deal has created a council to study Georgia’s child welfare system and come up with ways to protect children better from neglect and abuse.

That committee is creating recommendations to deal with the morale of DFCS caseworkers, large caseloads, stagnant salaries and potential exposure of workers to violence, among other issues.

Stemming the high rate of turnover is vital, children’s advocates say.

“Personal recognition from inside and outside the department could help reinforce the promise of better things to come,’’ says Pat Willis of Voices for Georgia’s Children, who notes the challenge of reducing caseloads amid high worker turnover.

Georgia’s DFCS measures required by the feds generally compare favorably with other states, Willis adds.

“I am so sympathetic to that DFCS professional who has withstood a social and economic beating while trying to protect children and promote strong functional families,’’ she says. “It’s hard to ask them to hang on a little longer, but we need their leadership to implement the strategies of the commissioner and the recommendations of the Child Welfare Reform Council.”

Hyacinth Empinado is a freelance journalist in Athens. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in health and medical journalism at the University of Georgia.