Oklahoma continues to struggle keeping caseloads manageable for frontline child welfare workers who investigate abuse, according to a report released this week.

About a third of DHS workers who investigate cases of child abuse were still working over recommended caseloads standards in June 2018, according to a report from the monitors of a class action, civil rights settlement to improve the state’s child welfare system.

Oklahoma currently has a backlog of about 407 open child abuse cases, down from 559 midway through 2018, according to DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell.

A child abuse investigation is considered part of the backlog if it is open longer than 60 days.

The report, authored by three co-neutrals tasked with monitoring the progress on the Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan settlement, called on DHS to do more to meet caseload standards laid out by the settlement six years ago.

“Given the fundamental importance of ensuring caseworkers in Oklahoma have manageable caseloads, DHS must act with urgency and focus to ensure the department makes substantial and sustained progress toward the caseload standard,” the co-neutrals said in the report.

On June 30, 2018, there were 19 DHS child abuse and neglect investigators who carried a caseload more than 200 percent of the standard, up from 14 caseworkers on December 31, 2017.

Those numbers highlight “DHS’ challenge to ensure staffing levels are sufficient to meet the total workload for this worker type,” the report said.

Marcia Lowry, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit that resulted in the Pinnacle Plan settlement, said DHS needs to do more to demonstrate it is making progress to reduce workloads for child welfare workers.

‘They made commitments to us about what they were going to do to lower caseloads and that doesn’t seem to be happening,” Lowry said. “I think that’s a problem.”

The problem is more pronounced in some parts of the state than others.

In Tulsa County, Just 34 percent of child welfare workers met caseload standards midway through 2018, according to the report.

In the past six months, DHS has reduced workloads for child welfare workers in Tulsa County by re-allocating staff to critical areas, said Millie Carpenter, interim director of Child Welfare Services for DHS.

About 80 percent of Tulsa County child welfare workers now meet caseload standards, she said.

In Osage and Pawnee counties, only 40 percent of caseworkers met workload standards midway through 2018. DHS is attempting to re-allocate staff to the region from neighboring districts to help deal with the problem, Carpenter said.

DHS has struggled to hire and keep adequate numbers of child welfare workers because of the high-stress nature of the job, as as well as more competitive pay offered by the private sector and tribal government, Carpenter said.

In 2018, DHS committed to hiring about 500 new staff across DHS’ 29 districts by December 31, 2018. Of these 500 positions, DHS reported that half were already vacant as of March 2018 and the other half DHS projected would be vacated over the remainder of the calendar year as a result of staff turnover.

The average starting pay for a child welfare worker in Oklahoma hovers around $40,000 a year.

DHS has about 3000 frontline staff position it needs to keep filled, which is an ongoing challenge, Carpenter said.

The state is also trying to do more to manage expectations for new child welfare workers through more training and communication.

Some child welfare workers have left DHS for child welfare positions for Native American tribes, citing better pay, she said. Others have turned to jobs in public education after the state enacted a teacher pay raise last year.

“This work isn’t for everyone we are really looking at trying to better relay what it is like to work in child welfare services,” Carpenter said.

Overall, DHS has made gains in reducing the number of children in state care over the past five years and reducing child abuse through preventative measures, Carpenter said.

“I would hope that people will note where we are today and the gains that we’ve made,” she said

Further reading:

Report: Oklahoma slow to remove some children from abusive foster homes

 With nowhere else to go, some of state’s most vulnerable kids end up at Tulsa’s Laura Dester shelter