DSS works Saturdays to reduce case load
By Shavonne Potts
Each week, the Rowan County Department of Social Services receives three or four new reports of child abuse or neglect.
Child Protective Services, a division of DSS, has 13 investigators who look into those cases. The investigators can juggle as many as 44 cases at a time.
The state says 12 is a manageable number for an investigator, said Sandra Wilkes, Rowan County Department of Social Services director.
Rowan DSS officials say investigators here can manage with 15. They’re averaging about 20 cases now.
To get to that number, the department has implemented a temporary Saturday work day for investigators with the highest caseloads.
“Our Saturday plan has worked. We have addressed the immediate concern of getting those very high caseloads down. Now we are looking at how to maintain the manageable caseload size,” Wilkes said.
In October, investigators received 278 reports of child abuse or neglect. Of those, 180 were accepted for investigation.
Each allegation of abuse, DSS officials say, is thoroughly screened to determine if it warrants an investigation or family assessment.
That screening requires an investigator to visit the child’s home and interview everyone living there. Depending on the allegation, the visit could be within two hours or within a 24-hour or 72-hour period.
“An investigator who may have planned to spend all day working on active cases all of sudden may find he has been assigned to reports that have to be handled immediately,” Wilkes said.
A high volume of cases could also mean a supervisor may have to manage a case, Wilkes said.
Barbara Sharpe, Child Protective Services administrator, said there are three main types of reports ó abuse, neglect or dependency ó and each carries time-consuming requirements for an investigator.
Abuse could be physical, sexual or emotional, or it could involve moral turpitude, when a parent or guardian encourages the child to commit crimes such as shoplifting. Neglect is considered any improper care or supervision or inappropriate discipline. In a dependency case, a child does not have a guardian, or the guardian is not able to care for child due to physical or mental disabilities.
In any investigation, DSS workers spend a lot of time visiting children’s homes and schools, where they may speak with administrators, teachers or counselors.
If the alleged abuse is physical, the investigator must obtain medical records, especially if a child has visible physical injuries.
If an allegation involves sexual abuse, an investigator arranges for a medical exam at the Terrie Hess House, the county’s child advocacy center. The investigator interviews the child and collects evidence of abuse, if it’s present. An investigation should be closed within 30 days and a family assessment investigation should be closed within 45 days.
An investigator must document each assessment, exam and other evidence collected for a case. In a given case, Sharpe estimates, an investigator must keep up with 30 or more pages of information. About 10 of those pages deal primarily with the initial stages of the case.
“It is now more and more detailed,” Sharpe said. Even so, administrators and supervisors encourage investigators to “get out and make sure children are seen and families are talked to, and that means paperwork.”
High caseloads mean more paperwork, and Sharpe said with the number of reports DSS receives, “We don’t have the number of workers we need.”
Since the department isn’t getting more investigators, administrators arranged beginning in October for workers with the highest caseloads to come in on Saturdays to get paperwork done.
“It enables them to get it done and get cases closed,” Sharpe said.
Wilkes said easing caseloads is also addressing other concerns. Investigators overwhelmed with cases can work a lot of overtime, meaning less time off and more stress.
And for families, she said, “It may mean some services not being provided as timely as they need to be.”
Though it’s helping, having investigators work Saturdays is temporary, Wilkes said. As planned, investigators will work a total of seven Saturdays. DSS staff members are also looking at other options for reducing caseloads, such as having investigators who would only work on new cases.
“The investigators would go out on those reports and not take other investigators from that case,” Wilkes said.
But DSS officials know that whatever they do to better manage their caseloads, they can only help once they are involved. The issues behind child abuse and neglect, which sometimes involve parents abusing drugs and alcohol, are more difficult to control.
“There is no easy fix or solutions, and for that reason our caseloads have increased significantly,” Wilkes said.