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With high case loads causing numerous staff departures, Child Protective Services seeks more positions

SALISBURY — When Tina Kaufman started school at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, she thought she wanted to be an attorney.

Anticipating law school after she earned her undergraduate degree, Kaufman majored in political science. However, like many college students, Kaufman changed courses after discovering a different passion.

“During schooling and an internship I did, I realized (law school) wasn’t necessarily the path I wanted to take and that I really wanted to help people,” Kaufman said. “Especially helping teenagers is where my heart really lied, and I felt like social work was a better avenue for me to take.”

Kaufman, a native of Winston-Salem, still graduated with a degree in political science, but started working in foster homes instead of applying to law schools. Eventually, she found her way to Rowan County.

“I worked with various (social services) agencies throughout the state, basically at the children’s home, and the social workers in Rowan County and the kids in Rowan County, I don’t know what it was, but I gravitated toward them,” Kaufman said.

Off and on for the past decade, Kaufman has held various positions in Rowan County’s Department of Social Services. For the previous year, she’s worked in Child Protective Services, a unit within Social Services that assesses abuse, neglect and dependency of children from birth to the time they turn 18. As a social worker in the unit, Kaufman has worked to assess reports of abuse, neglect or dependency.

Despite it still being “in her heart” to serve as a social worker, Kaufman recently submitted her resignation. Her last day with the department will be on May 21. 

Kaufman’s departure may be voluntary, but it was prompted by the crushing avalanche of cases she was responsible for handling and the seemingly endless stress that came with them.

“When I turned in my notice, it was over 30 (cases) and it’s not unusual to have over 20,” Kaufman said. “The state standard is 10.”

Needing more workers

Kaufman is the latest, but certainly not the only, social worker who has recently left Rowan County’s Child Protective Services unit. Since early March, Department of Social Services Director Micah Ennis said there have been six “separations,” which means an employee either resigned or was terminated.

At full staff, the unit would have 16 daytime social workers and two off-hour workers to answer calls during the night or on weekends. After the separations, the staff was down to almost half that number.

Earlier this month, Ennis attended the Rowan County Board of Commissioners’ budget work session regarding the county’s fiscal year 2021-22 budget. She was there to make a request for $232,000 to cover the costs of four additional social workers and one supervisor.

Ennis told commissioners during the meeting the Child Protective Services unit had failed to meet caseloads standard in each of the last four years. Based on caseload data reported to the state, Rowan County needed 20 full-time employees on average in 2017, 28 in 2018, 27 in 2019 and 22 in 2020. In each of those years, the unit only had 16. 

Those numbers didn’t incorporate staff vacancies, medical leave and other issues, which made the disparity between needed workers and actual workers even greater.

Having more workers to take on the number of available cases, Ennis said, is what she believes to be the best solution to the staff shortage.

Facing challenges

Working in Child Protective Services, Ennis said, is difficult enough on a daily basis.

“Child Protective Services assessments is really a brutal job anyway,” Ennis said. “Even on a good day, it’s just not what ordinary folk would call a good day. You see things that are devastating to have to see and you hear things that are devastating to have to hear. There’s a lot of secondary traumatic stress in this work.”

Oftentimes, Kaufman and her colleagues are charged with interjecting themselves into familial situations that are emotionally charged and potentially dangerous.

“We don’t always receive a warm welcome when we show up at someone’s door,” Kaufman said. “We’re often perceived as a threat and when you are threatening someone’s children, they can lash out at times. That can be a stressor as well, having to manage that.”

The job, Kaufman said, follows her home.

“I’ve experienced issues with not sleeping, not eating, being more irritable at home,” Kaufman said. “Those kinds of things that stress can do to a person.”

There are resources available to the county’s social workers to help them deal with the trauma they experience, Ennis said. The county offers an employee assistance program that provides professional counseling provided by McLaughlin Young Employee Services. Finding the time to take advantage of that resource in the midst of long working days, Kaufman said, is another challenge altogether.

Along with the natural challenges that come with the job, Ennis said the online system the department uses to input and manage case information can also cause delays and frustrations. The system, which is called NC FAST (North Carolina Families Accessing Services Through Technology), looks to integrate child protection, child foster care placement and adoption services across the state by having each county use the same online system. It was first implemented in pilot counties in 2017 and was deployed in Rowan County a couple years later.

The program is a great idea in theory, Ennis said, but has not proven to be seamless in practice.

“The problem is that it’s not very user friendly,” Ennis said. “Despite efforts to make it user friendly, it’s really not.”

All the challenges facing a social worker, from stresses that come with families to finding time to care for their own mental health, are further exacerbated when caseloads are high. That can lead to long days and eventual burn out, Ennis said.

“It’s hard enough to sleep at night because of what you hear and what you see,” Ennis said. “But if you’re worried about child safety because you wake up in the middle of the night and you think, ‘Oh my gosh, I forgot to make that referral to the health department. Or, I forgot to mention this, or I forgot to ask this.’ Those kinds of things. Just from my personal experience over the years as an employee and having done this work for a long time, that kind of stuff wears you down very quickly.”

That’s precisely what happened to Kaufman. As her caseload continued to mount higher and higher, she felt like she couldn’t give each child or family the attention they deserved.

“I struggle with not being able to do what I feel is necessary to be able to adequately assess the safety of children and do everything I felt like I should or could if I had time to protect these kiddos,” Kaufman said.

COVID-19 didn’t help things either. Kaufman said there were more cases referred to the unit because children were missing virtual school, which was often due to internet connectivity issues or a parent’s lack of knowledge on how to connect virtually. Families were also spending more time at home together, which could have been a stressor that led to abuse or neglect, Kaufman said.

Kaufman said there wasn’t anything the Department of Social Services could’ve done to keep her on staff, but she believes increasing the number of social workers would help remaining staff members and any future employees.

Although Kaufman isn’t sure what her next career move will be, she knows what she’ll do after May 21.

“The next step is to go home and love on my family and spend time there,” Kaufman said.

While $232,000 for four additional positions may seem like a significant amount of money to add to the county’s budget, Ennis says allocating those funds could actually save money by avoiding costly staff turnover.

“I’ve worked on a calculation and roughly it’s about $34,000 that it costs in turnover if you have a vacancy for about 50 working days,” Ennis said.

Staffing needs

Ennis said the department will also explore new ways to supplement its Child Protective Services staffing needs, including partnering with colleges to funnel recent graduates into the county. The suggestion to form partnerships with nearby colleges was made by Commissioner Mike Caskey at the budget work session. Child Protective Services has already implemented creative scheduling techniques, Ennis said, to cope with being down several staff members.

There is a ray of light shining from the end of the tunnel for the Child Protective Services unit. Ennis said the Department of Social Services is currently in the process of bringing on several new employees to fill some of the existing vacancies. Interviews with candidates who could bring the unit back to full staff, Ennis said, are happening almost daily.

But to avoid another situation in which there are numerous departures from the unit at one time, Ennis said she believes the extra requested positions will be necessary.

Regardless of whether the department receives the requested funding in next year’s budget, Ennis said the Child Protective Services unit will continue to handle cases with the staff it has.

“We soldier on,” Ennis said. “We do the absolute best we can and ask (for funding) however many times it has to be asked. The work has to be done.”

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