The Florida Department of Children and Families has been plagued by controversies in recent years, putting the lives of the state’s most vulnerable children at risk.
Typically, such investigations are followed by calls for more funding. Check.
There are calls for more staff to reduce the case load of staff investigators. Check.
But a true solution is more basic than that. Anyone in business knows that you can’t operate efficiently if you can’t find and retain good staff.
“No issue has a greater effect on the capacity of the child welfare system to effectively serve vulnerable children and families than the shortage of a competent and stable workforce,” reported the Child Welfare League of America.
Yet reforms in DCF will never take place until the department reduces its massive rate of turnover.
At one point in the Northeast Florida region, it was a jaw-dropping 50 percent. Now it is at 30 percent, still too high, said David Abramowitz, Northeast regional secretary for DCF.
There is no way to operate effectively when inexperienced staff are reporting to inexperienced supervisors.
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Florida typically graduates 1,500 people or more from its 14 schools of social work each year. But many of them must leave the state, tragically.
The bachelor’s of social work degree requires a structured internship with extensive supervision by a master’s level social worker and many hours of coursework.
Yet in the past, DCF only allowed a wide variety of experience that implied a lack of respect for the social work degree.
This does not respect the incredible demands on child welfare investigators, which combines the hard talents of investigating families in crisis with the soft skills of providing services to families.
“They are exposed to people in places and under conditions that most of us could never imagine,” reported a Miami-Dade grand jury.
Turnover in the social work profession began to receive public attention in the 1970s. Christina Maslach created a way to test for it with the Maslach Burnout Inventory. A book titled “Burnout Among Social Workers” co-edited by Maslach was published in 1987.
Research showed that more experienced social workers were less prone to burnout.
Loving kids is not enough, said Pamela Graham, director of the Bachelor’s of Social Work and Professional Development Program at Florida State University.
Many of FSU’s interns did not stay with DCF after being hired, according to a legislative staff analysis.
A FSU survey looked for reasons:
■ Poor management and administration.
■ Poor professional support.
■ A lack of respect and not feeling valued by upper management.
■ Too little teamwork with employees.
Investigators often work long hours, entering unsafe neighborhoods at late hours, but did not feel enough concern from their supervisors.
Too often staffers are placed in a position where “they don’t know what they don’t know,” Graham said, supervised by people who aren’t much help.
Neither pay nor caseloads are the real issues, she said. It’s about creating a highly skilled professional class of employees.
A report from the American Public Human Services Association lists strategies to prevent burnout and turnover.
■ Good supervision from someone who cares about the worker as a person.
■ Increased training, education and technological support.
■ An agency mission that makes workers feel important.
■ Dependable management support and commitment to workers.
The new state legislation will begin building that professionalism along with an institute based at Florida State to research best practices.
Currently only about 10 percent of DCF investigators statewide have social work degrees; it’s about 6 percent in the Northeast region.
It may take till 2019 before 50 percent of DCF staff have social work degrees.
It might take a decade to build a department that is fully professionalized.
Abramowitz said he is doing a much more thorough hiring job. New employees are being told that being an investigator may mean working nights and weekends. Since January, there have been 800 applications for DCF jobs and just 25 people have been hired, he said, a reflection of higher standards.
In a telephone interview, Graham said that DCF has made good strides in hiring social work graduates for entry level positions. The more difficult issue is to find qualified supervisors. An entry level employee who is being poorly supervised is likely to leave, she said.
Abramowitz said he is increasing training for supervisors and also is willing to hire out-of-state to find quality supervisors. DCF is filling eight Critical Child Safety Practice Expert positions in the 20-county Northeast Florida region.
The people who fill these positions will be responsible for conducting rapid safety quality assurance reviews of cases involving children deemed to be at high risk for critical injuries and death.
Despite all these difficulties, he said, child safety is not negotiable.
But for far too long, employee qualifications were negotiable.