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Nearly a quarter of DCF social workers left in 2015

But agency says social work vacancies haven’t compromised safety

By Meg Wingerter | January 19, 2016

Nearly one-quarter of social workers with the Kansas Department for Children and Families left the job in a yearlong period ending Dec. 1, 2015, and job vacancies increased by more than two-thirds at the same time.

DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore told the House Children and Seniors Committee on Tuesday morning that recruitment and retention were areas of focus for the agency, and its strategic plan also pointed to a need to hold on to employees. But that’s a challenge for DCF in part because social workers can make more money with other employers, she said.

“One of the problems for our agency is needing more social workers,” she said. “We are not really competitive with salaries.”

Most DCF social workers earn $38,000 to $50,000 annually, department spokeswoman Theresa Freed said. The numbers include social workers in child protective services, adult protective services and independent living and foster care programs, she said.

The turnover rate for DCF social workers was 24.4 percent from Dec. 1, 2014, to Dec. 1, 2015, according to the agency. That was a slightly higher rate than in the previous two years.

Vacancies also rose, and the number of social workers employed at DCF fell. On Dec. 1, 2014, there were 373 social workers and 40 vacant positions. A year later, DCF had 323 social workers and 67 vacant positions — a 67.5 percent increase in vacancies.

Turnover among social workers hasn’t caused safety concerns, Freed said.

“Although we are working hard to fill our social work vacancies, child safety has not been compromised due to the shortage of social workers,” she said.

“We are not really competitive with salaries.”

- Kansas Department for Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore

DCF has taken steps to improve retention, including equipping social workers with mobile devices, Freed said. Those will allow social workers to fill out reports without driving to a DCF service center and to contact law enforcement if they feel unsafe while on the job, she said.

The department also has offered incentives to social workers willing to work in areas of the state where recruitment is particularly difficult, such as rural regions of western Kansas, Freed said. The incentive varies by area and position but could be as much as several thousand dollars in additional salary, she said.

DCF also expanded the definition of who could serve as a child protection specialist to include licensed social workers with a bachelor’s degree, licensed master’s-level psychologists, licensed clinical psychotherapists, licensed professional counselors, and licensed marriage and family therapists.

When DCF announced the expansion in November, Gilmore said people in those professions are qualified to do child welfare work.

“We are excited to welcome these professionals who are well-trained in the world of child welfare to work alongside our social workers who are often overburdened with heavy caseloads,” she said in a news release. “As a licensed social worker, I know the job can be physically and emotionally draining, and our social workers deserve to feel supported.”

Sky Westerlund, executive director of the Kansas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, questioned whether counselors and therapists would be able to do social work. DCF social workers have to recommend services to help a family to function or recommend removing a child if that isn’t possible, she said.

“Those professions are skilled in conducting therapy and their license allows for therapy work, but (child protective services) is not a job in therapy,” she said. “Rather, child welfare work involves a great deal of assessment, engagement with reluctant families, asking questions and evaluating the very safety of a child or children.”

Social workers also need to know how to write the reports the court system would use in child placements, Westerlund said, and are required to complete safety training because they enter potentially volatile situations.

“Changing the title does not change the work, and it is social work, not therapy,” she said.

Social workers generally get into the profession because they want to help families, Westerlund said, but need small caseloads and adequate time, resources and training. Comparatively low pay also may drive some to leave state employment, she said.

“That is not likely the first reason, but it can be the final motivator to find a different job for better salary and job satisfaction,” she said. “DCF is only one of many options for licensed social workers to begin and build a career.”

Special investigators and other support staff also have helped with case management duties to free social workers’ time, Freed said. Special investigators aren’t required to have a college degree, though DCF says most have a background in social work or law enforcement.

The number of social workers employed at DCF has fallen since 2012. According to department data, it employed 402 social workers on Dec. 1, 2012; 373 on the same date in 2013 and 2014; and 323 on the same date in 2015.

Vacancies have fluctuated in both directions, from 57 in 2013 down to 40 in 2014, and up to 67 in 2015. Some of the fluctuations may have come from decisions to eliminate vacant positions, however, because the total of filled and vacant positions has fallen from 430 in 2013 to 390 in 2015.

Turnover rates were 20.1 percent in the year ending Dec. 1, 2013, and 18.8 percent in the year ending in December 2014. 

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