No matter how many problems your child welfare system has, you can usually take solace that you’re not in Mississippi. For years the state system has been synonymous with all those adjectives that make caseworkers and administrators cringe: Beleaguered. Scandalous. Overwhelmed.
The state is far from getting a “promising practices” stamp, but a staff training program run by a school of social work and an accreditation plan mandated by a lawsuit settlement are forging reforms that other systems might learn from.
The changes are perhaps most pronounced in Forrest County, where the county arm of the state Division of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS) has suffered from overwhelming caseloads, too few case closures, too many multiple placements, and what Youth Court Judge Michael McPhail calls an “us-versus-them” approach to critics and too many staffers who “just didn’t care.”
Last year, the School of Social Work at the University of Southern Mississippi contracted with DFCS to rebuild the county’s child welfare staff through recruitment, hiring, training and supervision. The aim, says project director Lori Woodruff, is to turn the county agency into a model.
Forrest County – with a population of 76,000 and home to the city of Hattiesburg – was a logical place for such an initiative, because the DFCS caseload size and poor outcomes there were enough to “drag down the state significantly,” says Michael Forster, director of the School of Social Work. “Progress in Forrest County meant progress for the state.”
The statewide caseload average in 2004 was 48 children per worker, reaching more than 100 in some counties.
Rickie Felder, a management consultant hired as DFCS director in 2005 with orders to fix the system, began talking about reform with school officials and McPhail, whose Youth Court handles the county’s child welfare cases and who was an outspoken critic of the agency. When caseworkers appeared in his court, he says, “They were disorganized. They were ill-trained. They didn’t know what to present.” He says he barred some caseworkers from court for lying.
The School of Social Work had credibility with both sides: It had worked with the DFCS on other projects, such as helping agency employees earn master’s degrees in social work, and had collaborated with McPhail on delinquency prevention. The question was whether the school could apply its theories to improving staff performance.
In 2006, DFCS gave the school a $727,000, one-year contract to help train and upgrade the staff. Forster says the university provided one-quarter of that total in in-kind aid, tuition waivers, and reduced reimbursement to cover overhead.
One of the first missions was to hire more staff. When the project began in May 2006, the county agency had fewer than 10 permanent staffers – not even half its allotted strength. The agency “had trouble even getting applications,” says Woodruff, the project director.
Employee recruitment efforts included mass e-mailings of job announcements to students and alumni of the school, ads in newsletters, participation in job fairs on campus and more student internships at the agency.
The staff now stands at 14, with a goal of reaching 24. More applicants could have been hired, Woodruff says, but standards have risen. “We’re not just taking anyone any more,” she says.
When it comes to training those staffers, Woodruff says, the objective has been to create a culture that’s oriented toward family preservation and the application of best practices.
The trainers are Woodruff (who has master’s degrees in social work and education), her deputy, John Reynolds, and consultants Ronnie Crawford and Gary Moers. Three of them are former DFCS regional directors, Woodruff and Reynolds are on the USM faculty, and Moers chaired the University of Mississippi Department of Social Work.
One challenge was that nearly all the employees were unseasoned. The training has been largely on the job, as staffers handle cases with demonstrations and supervision from school personnel. “They’re being trained as they do the work,” says Forster, “and they’re getting feedback as they go along.”
For example, if a worker needs to hold a family team meeting, a trainer will help her prepare for it and will conduct the meeting, while the worker watches. When it’s time for the worker to lead a meeting, the trainer watches and provides a critique afterward.
“There’s a lot of modeling as far as, ‘How do you interview this child? How do you engage with this client?’ Woodruff says. “There’s also hands-on training on, ‘How do you do your [case] narrative? Let me review what you’ve done, your court report.’ ”
Workers are also taught how to work more closely with schools, the court, law enforcement and other local agencies. In the past, McPhail says, the agency appeared uninterested in such coordination.
Local observers say they see results.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of progress,” says Josie Brown, a former DFCS social worker who now runs the county’s Zero to Three children’s program. She’s noticed that more youth are being placed in homes within the county, which makes parental visits easier, and in kinship care. She says the county department now has a prevention unit to work with families to avoid out-of-home placements, and she has noticed more teamwork among staffers.
Brown says that when she worked at DFCS, it “was so short-staffed, all we could was put a Band-Aid on a problem. … Now I’m seeing people get to the root of the problem.”
Sharon DeBerry, clinical director of services for children at Pine Belt Mental Healthcare Resources, says agency staffers “seem more skilled, definitely more cooperative and willing to work with mental health.”
The most striking improvement for her involves reaching workers. “In the past, you could never get in touch with a social worker,” she says. They did not return phone calls and were too busy to talk at their offices.
Statistical measures show some improvement as well. For the 14-month period from May 2006 to July 2007, Felder says, the number of children in custody fell from 243 to 164. Of the 42 taken into custody since the project began, 10 have been returned home or placed in permanent homes – a far higher rate than in the past. The number of abuse or neglect cases where investigation is overdue has fallen 98 percent. Caseloads have fallen from as many as 80 per worker to about 28.
In Youth Court, McPhail sees big changes in the performance of child protective workers. “Rather than say, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I have to look that up,’ ” he says, the workers know their cases well and “we move through cases with efficiency.” As a result, he says, “We’re meeting our timelines for permanency planning.”
The agency has renewed its contract with the School of Social Work for another year for $656,000, plus a 25 percent match from the university.
Contact: DFCS (800) 359-4999; School of Social Work (601) 266-4163, www.usm.edu/socialwork.