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Shannon Casas: DFCS work is overwhelming. I'm glad someone’s brave enough to try turning around the sinking ship
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

I’ve got two hats I wear on a daily basis. You see them each week in the tagline of this column: editor of the paper and foster parent.

Sometimes those two worlds collide, which was the case last week. In three different meetings related to foster care I introduced myself rattling off a list of titles: Hi, I’m Shannon Casas, editor of the newspaper, foster parent with the private child-placing agency Faithbridge and Promise686 advocate at Gainesville First United Methodist Church. 

That last title basically means I work with my church’s foster care ministry to create care teams that support foster parents like myself. Given how much time and energy those first two titles take up, that last one is mostly just in name. But I contribute ideas where I can. 

The meetings I attended included two with Division of Family and Children Services state leaders and one with a nonprofit that’s got some exciting things planned for this year’s Christmas for children in foster care — I’ll have more details for you on that later.

Rattling off those titles feels a little silly; like, which hat do you want me to wear right now? Or should I just stack them one on top of the other on my head and see if I can balance them all? 

I may be at a meeting because I’m a foster parent, but inevitably my role at the newspaper will come into play in the conversation.

Wearing these hats keeps me busy. That’s now one of the most popular answers to “How are you today?” Not “Good” or “Fine” but “Busy.” I haven’t had an answer for that question at all lately. Busy doesn’t begin to describe how we’re really doing. 

Between therapy appointments, school work, visits with caseworkers, visits with birth families — sometimes there’s so much going on for our kids that busy doesn’t do justice to their daily life either. 

To accurately answer that question, I think I’d need to show a video of a child in my home crying so hard and so long that he’s telling me he doesn’t know how to stop. And though I’m a bit more equipped to cope with my emotions, I’m feeling just the same.

Sorry, that took a dark turn, but emotions in foster care can be overwhelming. 

I don’t know how many hats DFCS caseworkers have to wear, but I’m fairly certain they’re overworked enough to be feeling emotionally overwhelmed, too. Or as Tom Rawlings, state director of DFCS, put it — hangry. No one does their job well when they’re hangry.

Everybody knows DFCS is a broken system. Even Rawlings referenced those words in last week’s meetings.

In a meeting with foster parents, he referred to his work as turning the Titanic around but noted that wasn’t a good metaphor since the Titanic sank.

We all feel like we’re sinking sometimes. These jobs feel monumental and possibly impossible. 

The average caseload for caseworkers in the Hall County office is 28, according to data from the state division. Depending on the type of work those caseworkers do, the goal caseload is 15 or 23. 

The turnover rate at the Hall office is 63%. That’s the second highest in Region 2, which covers 13 counties.

It’s easy to see why caseworkers balancing too many cases and emotions for very little pay might walk out the door.

Rawlings wants to reduce the caseloads. I’m sure the director before him wanted that as well. Former Gov. Nathan Deal laid out specific goals for it. I asked Rawlings how DFCS was ever going to actually accomplish these goals.

He responded that he wanted the department to have more access to data about kids as reports were made and that the department should focus on its core mission of helping kids who could not be helped any other way. He spoke of other agencies helping families with specific problems like homelessness or poor living conditions — I assume so DFCS doesn’t have to intervene every time.

I can’t say I’m optimistic that we’ll see any change. I’ve only spoken of overloaded caseworkers, and that’s just one tiny part that’s not working in this giant broken system. 

But I’m glad we see the iceberg this time, and someone is brave enough to try to turn the Titanic around before it sinks.

Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a foster parent. You can hear her most weeks on the Inside The Times podcast on iTunes or Google Play.

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