Kudos to Governor Patrick for increasing the MA Department of Children and Families budget by 5%. This funding will help to increase caseworker staffing and reduce caseloads, which currently are too high, limit the time and attention caseworkers can devote to children and families under their purview, and the ability of the supervisors of caseworker to perform their due diligence. We have all followed the recent news reports on the troubles of DCF that bring these issues to surface.
Of course, this increase is not nearly enough. On the one hand, it will not allow for the optimal caseload sizes –8-10 per casework, perhaps less. Every child –and by extension their family—with complex mental and physical health conditions, substance abuse and domestic violence issues, job and housing insecurity, education / special –education needs, and legal concerns requires extensive support and coordination from a caseworker. One or two complex cases alone can overwhelm a caseworker.
But greater funding is needed for more than expanding the number of caseworkers. Because of the complexity, demands and stress placed on caseworkers, DCF also needs funding for two other, key strategic areas:
Professional development. All DCF caseworkers should receive high level training in children’s development and mental health, from birth to young adult hood. They need to be acutely aware of what to look for when visiting with children, assessing their environments, and observing interactions with their care-takers. They need training in adult learning, and what helps or motivates adults to take positive action and improve their conditions. They need further knowledge and awareness of how other key health, human service, and education systems work and how best to coordinate efforts across systems.
Higher pay. It is not just that we need more caseworkers, we need to pay them more to acknowledge the professionalism, complexity and stress inherent in their jobs. DCF caseworkers make on average $52,000 per year. Given the demands of the job, caseworkers often view the cost to high (personally and professionally) for the benefits (salary).
Both of these steps will help reduce high turnover rates among DCF staff — 50% turnover is not uncommon in MA and across the country. But more importantly, high level training and pay for caseworkers – and, in turn, retention of trained professionals—will increase the quality of care children in the DCF system receive. So while its popular to criticize DCF and its staff, the right step is to double down on this child welfare system in our state, and invest in their people.
Jake Murray is the Senior Director of the Aspire Institute.