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Children in Crisis: Child welfare in the Ocean State

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Children in Crisis: Child welfare in the Ocean State

Picture of Kristin Gourlay

Child welfare agencies across the country are struggling. But Rhode Island's Dept. of Children, Youth, and Families scores failing grades on multiple measures. This on air and online series investigates the high number of foster kids placed in group homes, the failure to recruit enough foster families, how health care providers struggle to care for a surge in children who have experienced trauma, and more. 

Other stories in the series include: 

Children In Crisis: Caring for foster kids, doctors find long reach of neglect, abuse

Children In Crisis: Struggling to recruit enough foster families

Children In Crisis: Home visiting aims to prevent child abuse and neglect

Rhode Island Public Radio
Thursday, August 27, 2015

Social workers at Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families say they have too many cases to really make a difference in children’s lives. The agency is already facing criticism for other problems, including putting one of the nation’s highest percentages of foster children in group homes. To kick off the series “Children in Crisis,” Kristin Gourlay spends a day in the field with one caseworker trying to manage through an agency in turmoil.

Katie Dalton gets to work by eight o’clock in the morning. She walks into her cubicle. And she’s hasn’t even set her bag on the desk when the phone rings. It’s some troubling news about a client.

Dalton learns the client hasn’t been making her appointments with a parenting coach. The coach wants to drop her from the program, but Dalton pleads for more time. She says she’ll talk to her client about sticking with it when she sees her later today. But right now she has to get organized for a busy day. 

She juggles nearly 20 cases at a time – well over the nationally recommended target of 14, "Which is the most challenging part from my perspective of the job," says Dalton. "Because the caseload is not manageable. It’s crisis intervention and doing the best you can, but really, the quality casework we should be doing to effectively work with the families you can’t accommodate on a daily basis because it’s just too demanding and overwhelming.”

Turnover among caseworkers like Dalton at DCYF is high – nearly 25 percent. It’s easy to understand why: caseworkers deal with child abuse and neglect. Their clients are in crisis. They try to cobble together the right services to heal broken families, but sometimes those families fall apart.:

Dalton is a petite 36-year-old. She’s been at this job for nearly a decade. She loves it-- despite the stress and too many clients. As the clock nears 8:30, she gathers her paperwork, and then it’s back downstairs and out the door to get to her first appointment. She takes her own car, because there aren’t enough agency vehicles to go around. And she brings her own cell phone, because the agency doesn’t provide them.  

Her first stop is an apartment in Pawtucket, to check in on the mother of a nine-month-old.

Dalton’s client smiles and invites her in. (We’re not using any names to protect her family’s privacy.) The client sits on her pink bedspread and Dalton pulls up a chair.

“So explain to me what’s going on during the week. You’re doing the SER program?”

Dalton is asking about a job training program, part of the plan she’s drawn up for this client to help her support her daughter on her own. The goal is to make sure the child can stay with her mom. But her father is a registered sex offender. And the client is struggling to accept the terms of a court order that bars them from living together. Dalton says they can arrange a supervised visit.

Dalton remains calm, professional, matter-of-fact throughout the visit. She’s worried about this client’s progress. But she can’t stay any longer because she has to get to her next appointment.

“We are going to this particular client’s mother’s home," Dalton says while navigating. "She’s having some work done on her apartment, so she’s asked if we could meet her at her mother’s home.”

Dalton says the next client is an 18-year-old single mother. It’s the same client she got a call about first thing this morning. The client experienced domestic violence; her three-year-old son witnessed it. And then the young woman was hospitalized for depression. Now she’s trying to get back on her feet.

“Her case is relatively new. So she’s just starting out with a few programs. So she has a home-based program with a worker that will come weekly. They really tailor the program to the needs of the client," Dalton says. "Her housing is stable, she just moved into her apartment, but being so young she might need some help with budgeting.”

Plus, she’s resisting appointments with a parenting coach and a domestic violence counselor. Dalton gets out of her car and knocks on the client’s front door. The apartment is on the first floor of a tidy but aging white house in Pawtucket.

Dalton and her client take a seat on the big brown sectional while the client’s little boy watches, big-eyed, between slugs from a bottle of juice. They have this exchange about missing appointments.

“I think it might be helpful for you to get some of that information," Dalton says.

“Do you think I should stay with her?”

“You kind of have to.”

“I have to?”

“It’s voluntary..." Dalton says.

“It’s voluntary, so that means I don’t have to.”

“So let me explain how that works," Dalton says, explaining that the parenting and domestic violence counselors are voluntary, but not exactly. To keep her son, she has to comply. But the client wants DCYF out of her life, so she can focus on the future.

“By the time I’m 30 I don’t want to be doing the same thing, working for $9 dollars an hour. That’s not my thing," says the client. "I really believe everyone’s check should say 'one million, five thousand' a week.”

No one would argue with that. But even with all the money in the world, she’d still need to satisfy DCYF’s requirements to keep custody of her son. And the clock is ticking. There are federally mandated deadlines for DCYF and their clients to meet.

Back in the car, DCYF caseworker Katie Dalton says she believes this little boy is safe. But the combination of a young, single mother, their poverty, and experiencing trauma so young puts him at risk for a slew of bad outcomes.  If she had more time, Dalton says she could do a better job addressing those risk factors. But with so many cases, she has to prioritize.

“Above all, what we have to do is worry about safety of the kids. So that’s the number one thing that we’re doing," Dalton says. "We also have to work towards permanency and worry about the kids’ wellbeing. Those come secondary to safety. But in doing that, in the constant crisis management, you can’t effectively do the casework that the case requires.”

Meanwhile, caseloads get heavier for social workers like Dalton. The number of calls about suspected child abuse or neglect has been rising. And DCYF finds it difficult to hold onto staff.

Agency officials know it’s a problem. Part of the overhaul plan for DCYF includes boosting employee morale. But they’re dealing with so many other issues, caseloads may have to wait.