Monday, September 15, 2003

What's Wrong at CPS: It's Not Fundamental, It's the Funding

I got a cryptic headline and placement down the left rail on the op-ed page, so a couple of my lines got cut, but as this is my blog, I've put them back in. If you want to read the column as it read in the paper yesterday, you can get it here.

Anyway, this week's column started out considerably differently; I was about to argue over the legal standards and mission, but after talking and emailing with people familiar with the child protective system, it's not a conceptual problem, but a practical one--too few people with too few resources given too big caseloads to track too many reports. It's not the paradigm that's the problem, but the budget.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 14, 2003

Imagine you’re a Child Protective Services caseworker.

Child abuse reports go to a statewide hotline. Calls get screened based on a series of “cue questions” to determine where the report fits on a 4-point scale. A “4” means potential neglect or abuse; “3” is low risk of abuse, “2” is moderate, and “1” is high, the most serious.

In Maricopa County, CPS caseworkers get, on average, 16 new reports monthly, plus must monitor another 12-15 kids in foster care, plus all the accompanying paperwork. The caseload is 25 percent higher than national standards recommend.

You have just 21 days to investigate each new report. Is the hotline caller telling the truth, or are the parents? Is a kid underweight, or are the parents clueless about nutrition? Are the parents merely strange, or neglectful or abusive?

A teacher or neighbor may have suspicions, but you’re on the spot. Are these adequate parents on a bad day, or truly terrible parents on their best behavior? You never want to remove kids from their parents, but also never want to let kids face neglect or abuse. Due to privacy laws, there’s no recognition if you guess right, but it’s front page news if you’re wrong, whether about what happened -- or what’s going to happen.

Forget the clear-cut cases; even legislators could determine those. What about close calls, where something isn’t right, but you can’t tell how wrong? And how long does it take to forgive yourself if you’re mistaken?

Meanwhile, your workload keeps increasing. The well-regarded Family Builders program used to pay providers, like Devereux Arizona (on whose board I serve), to visit 4’s or sometimes 3’s, to investigate and offer assistance to families under stress. But spending cuts gutted Family Builders -- while the Legislature still demands CPS investigate all cases, including these former referrals, without more caseworkers or support staff.

You have one of the most difficult jobs around, which doesn’t pay particularly well ($25,000 annually for new hires, and only $29,000 for over 2 years experience), and our Legislature keeps making the job worse by letting workloads increase without providing more resources. No wonder turnover is so high -- at least 24 percent annually, not including transfers to less-demanding jobs elsewhere in state government. (Many new hires face burnout in 6 to 12 months, and want something less stressful -- like handling explosives or performing brain surgery.)

Morale probably isn’t helped by the irrelevance of much of today’s debate over CPS. Too many people act as if changing a statute’s words will change the world, when the real problem is that current funding levels won’t get the job done if we have to hire human beings -- like you -- at CPS.

Perhaps someday androids will be CPS caseworkers. If you could program robots properly, they won’t have stress and could work for free. But if we expect CPS to function properly with ordinary humans trying to do a draining and demanding job, we need more people, more support staff, and better pay. CPS doesn’t need a new paradigm as much as more people and resources to have any hope of investigating the increasing numbers of abuse reports and properly supervising children already in foster care.

Maybe you can’t solve problems by throwing money at them, but you also can’t expect people with college and graduate degrees to investigate 16 (or more) abuse reports each month for under $30,000 a year. Pretending that every CPS caseworker somehow will be both superhuman and willing to work for less than the market wage is a cruel joke, both on them and on the children they try to help.

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