Children’s Home Society representative Jennifer Carrancejie listens as a resident of the Pinecrest neighborhood asks how to connect with vital services amid the COVID-19 shutdown during a tour of the area on Thursday, March 26, 2020. (Photo: Tony Gibersonfirstname.lastname@example.org)
We’re nearing a dangerous crossroad — and our most vulnerable children are in the center.
The exorbitant strain on Florida’s child welfare system has reached a tipping point, and our state’s leaders have a chance to do something about it.
Right now, more than 36,000 children are involved in the child welfare system; the majority are in foster care, while about 10,000 receive intensive services in their own homes so their families can remain intact.
How close to home is this? Statistically speaking, roughly four children in every Florida classroom are involved in this system of care.
Each one depends upon the front line of the child welfare system, the literal “boots on the ground,” to find their way out of the system — out of uncertainty and into stability.
It’s no easy feat. Child welfare case mangers carry a hefty responsibility: protect children, ensure every child has every service necessary to heal, ensure every child has the proper transportation to every appointment, ensure every child has proper plans in place for educational opportunities, ensure every child develops and strengthens family relationships … and more.
That’s step one. These same case managers must do this for the entire family, not just the kids. With a goal of safely bringing families back together as quickly as possible, child welfare professionals face, and overcome, the most daunting challenges imaginable. As they put children first day after day, they do it at the expense of their own families, sacrificing Saturday soccer games, evening ballet recitals and daddy-daughter dances so another family can become whole again.
But it takes a toll. Heavy workloads, high-intensity caseloads, secondary trauma inflicted by the very nature of the work, and demanding administrative burdens collide until it becomes too much. That’s when we see another case manager leave the field. Then another. And another.
When Children’s Home Society of Florida case manager Allison McGregor testified before the Senate Committee recently, she described this high turnover as “a burden of unnecessary chaos.
With turnover averaging between 40% and 60%, it’s not just case managers who feel the effect. Rather, it’s the children who ultimately suffer.
A recent study revealed that every time a case manager leaves, every child on that caseload spends an additional 4.5 months in foster care. If we take an average caseload of 18-20 kids, that’s a collective six to eight additional years in the system. For a single turnover event.
This happens hundreds of times each year, and the cost to our children is simply unacceptable. We must invest in a stable front-line child welfare workforce.
This requires multiple strategies, from investing in reasonable caseloads (the recommended ratio is 14:1) to support for secondary trauma, professional compensation and advancement opportunities, and ongoing training.
It all begins with a legislative investment.
The state Department of Children and Families has requested an additional $100 million over the next four years to strengthen the child welfare system — a critical investment for kids.
This past legislation session, the House and Senate agreed to allocate additional funds for child welfare with an emphasis on addressing caseload sizes, a key factor in creating a stable workforce. We are grateful for this support — and it could not have come at a more critical time.
As our nation, our state, our communities and each of us grapple with the uncertainty brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, there remains a single certainty: Our children need us more today than yesterday.
Isolating and social distancing are necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but this places at-risk children at a greater risk. Statistics show 75% of children enter foster care because of neglect, which is often triggered by fixable family issues such as challenges with poverty, substance abuse and untreated mental health disorders.
The additional strain our nation now faces brings significant stress to already overwhelmed families … and it is expected we will see more children come to the attention of our local child welfare systems of care in the coming days, weeks and months.
As our state’s leaders assess Florida’s financial situation and prepare to make budget adjustments, our commitment to children must remain.
Join me in thanking our legislators, and please urge them to continue to prioritize our children and our front-line child welfare workforce.
Otherwise, our children will pay the price.