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Nearly nine in 10 of the Missouri Children’s Division caseworkers who serve in the Kansas City region will have left the job by the end of the year, far outpacing the statewide rate, a state official predicted last week.
Caseworkers are critical to the success of the state’s child protection system, but low pay, high caseloads and little time off from their jobs are driving them away, Darrell Missey, the division’s new director, told legislators in a hearing.
His deputy, Joanie Rogers, said the issue is especially acute around Kansas City. Worker turnover in the region is at 88%, significantly higher than the 37% turnover rate predicted statewide this year.
“My perspective is we’re treading water,” Missey told the legislature’s Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect. “We’re doing our best to stem the bleeding.”
Despite efforts since 2014 to prioritize recruitment and retention efforts, chronic understaffing has long plagued the Missouri Children’s Division.
The turmoil begins at the top: The department has seen nine directors in the past decade and dealt with low morale, understaffing and low pay.
Recruitment and retention efforts clash with reality
The division currently has 237 vacancies, Missey said. But he added that number may not fully reflect how many caseworkers are needed to protect the state’s vulnerable children. State and local offices did not respond to requests for information on vacancies in Kansas City specifically.
Not only are offices short-staffed, turnover rates for some positions are increasing.
Rogers, deputy director of operations and administration for the Children’s Division, said the agency is projecting a 37% turnover rate statewide for 2022. She emphasized that staffing in Kansas City has been a “real challenge.”
Rep. Keri Ingle, D–Lee’s Summit, a former social worker, said she’s heard that by the summer, turnover rates in the region may be closer to 100%. The Missouri Children’s Division did not respond to requests for comment.
“I’m terrified for the families and the kids of the state of Missouri, particularly Jackson County and the Kansas City area,” Ingle said. “Because the Children’s Division is kind of one of the last lines of defense for these kids.”
Lori Ross, the founder, CEO and president of FosterAdopt Connect, a nonprofit based in Independence, said caseworker turnover in larger metro areas could be an issue because of the availability of other social work jobs.
“In the Kansas City area, there is a much broader market. So if you’re a social worker in a small town in Missouri, there are not that many social work jobs. But if you’re a social worker in Kansas City, or Springfield or St. Louis, you have lots of potential options,” Ross said.
Workloads and stress could also be a factor, she added.
“You also have a lot more responsibility with regard to the number of kids and there’s a lot more cases than you might have somewhere else,” Ross said.
“It’s a tough position to be in,” she added. “The pay for the amount of work is terrible. And once a lot of attrition starts happening, it just gets worse.”
That turnover cycle is costly for children, workers and the state’s bottom line, Ingle said.
“In an average year, we spent about $6 million training folks who don’t stay past six months,” she said. “And so there’s a huge loss of appropriation dollars that go towards training of folks who don’t stick around because it’s really hard work. And unfortunately, there’s just not enough folks there to support them the way that they need to be supported.”
The Missouri Department of Social Services, which manages the Children’s Division, concluded in its annual progress report that staff turnover contributed to lower rates of permanency — stable, long-term residential situations — for kids in the state.
In fiscal year 2018, turnover rates for two categories of social worker positions, service workers I and II, were 31% and 51%, respectively. In 2019, they were 32% and 46%; in 2020 they were 37% and 46%, according to the division’s annual progress report.
Recruitment efforts are facing just as much difficulty. Rogers said that between March 2020 and October 2021, the number of applicants fell by 76%. At a recent hiring event in Kirksville, Missouri, no one showed up, Missey said.
Those within the division and many lawmakers point to pay. Missouri’s caseworkers, who must have earned a bachelor’s degree to qualify, receive a starting salary of around $34,666. Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois all pay on average $10,000 higher as a starting salary. In Arkansas, where a bachelor’s degree is not required, the starting salary is nearly $2,000 higher than Missouri’s, at $36,000. The starting salary in Kansas was raised to $40,000 in 2018.
State employees were granted a 5.5% pay raise earlier this year, but there are concerns in the division beyond pay and turnover.
The stakes of the job are too high for understaffing and low pay, Ross said.
“I think it’s the fear of the mistakes,” she said. “These are people who care about kids, that’s why they got into this work. And the fear of, ‘I’m going to screw something up and a kid’s going to end up getting seriously hurt or killed.’”
Staff bogged down by high caseloads, long hours
As recruitment and retention efforts come up short, circumstances for workers who do stay on board become more difficult.
With short staffing, workers are on call more often and they get less time away from work, Missey said. That contributes to the hemorrhaging.
“Our front-line people are on call almost all the time because they’re short already. And so the rotation is shorter, and they’re on call,” Missey said. “And they leave for other social work jobs where they never have to be on call and they can go home and be with their families.”
Caseworkers in Missouri are supposed to manage 15 cases for children who are under the care of the state, according to accreditation standards. Missey said he has been talking with workers across the state, and not a single worker has had only 15 cases. One employee in Liberty, Missouri, was managing 38 cases, he said.
High caseloads make it next to impossible for social workers to do anything more than meet the minimum mandates, instead leaving workers “triaging,” Ingle said.
“I can tell you that the Children’s Division has an absolute crisis,” she said. “That means that the kids of the state of Missouri and the families in the state of Missouri are in crisis.”