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Broken Bonds: DFCS caseworkers face obstacles
High turnover, heavy caseloads take toll on foster system
Tyne Jackson checks with the clerk of courts for court orders at Hall County Juvenile Court. As a case manager with the Division of Family and Children Services in Hall County, she works plenty of overtime on a job that is high in stress.

Heavy caseloads
The state has set a goal of an average of 15 cases for caseworkers.
Divided by types of caseworkers, the averages in Hall County are as follows:
Investigations: 35
Foster Care: 25
Family Preservation: 25


Wednesday: Two longtime foster parents share their bittersweet stories.
Thursday: A mother tells of why her child was taken into custody and what it took to get her back. Also, learn about the organizations that help parents get on track.
Friday: Read the story of a child abused then adopted by a loving family and another story of a man who survived an abusive foster home.
Saturday: Many teen-
agers are referred to group homes, sometimes because their needs cannot be met in foster care and sometimes because there are no homes available to them.
Sunday: State leaders are looking to address the need for resources, with privatization of foster care high on the list of possibilities.

As she talks about the joys of working with foster children, Tyne Jackson can’t help crying a little.

When talking about the challenges, she settles for a sigh and resigned glance at the calendar in her softly lit office.

The  lighting, Jackson said, is a stress reducer. As a case manager with the Division of Family and Children Services in Hall County, her battle with stress is a constant one.

Jackson had 27 cases to work in September, and 22 business days to work them. Six of those days were spent in court. During the other 16, she had to find time for all 27 children and their families, as well as mountains of paperwork. Jackson, who began her job last spring, often works overtime, usually at odd hours. She said she deals with a minimum of 140 people per month, struggling to give  them all the time they need.

“To them, their phone call is an emergency situation, but on your radar it may not be the most important thing that’s happening at that time,” Jackson said.

Emergencies happen all the time, and the case manager on call has to respond immediately, even if they happen at 3 a.m. With most of Hall’s foster children living in homes outside the county because of a lack of foster homes, this often means driving long distances on short notice.

“This job is very difficult emotionally, spiritually and physically,” Jackson said. “When I can’t help children like I need to and like I want to, I spend a lot of time in prayer.”

Heavy caseloads

Cliff Jolliff, a Hall County juvenile court judge since 1990, presides over cases for children in state custody. He works often with foster system case managers, and he said it’s clear they’re overworked and overtired.

Last month, Jolliff said, a family needed to get in touch with an on-call caseworker who had been up all night, working for 15 hours straight.

“That person at some point has to go home,” he said. “This is a really difficult balance. ... It’s impossible to do it in the 40 hours the state gives them.”

Bobby Cagle, interim DFCS director for the state, agrees.

“There’s a point beyond which no person can humanly do all the things they have to do to protect children, with high caseloads,” he said.

In Hall, DFCS social workers performing investigations have an average caseload of 35. Caseworkers in foster care and family preservation average about 25. The goal, set by Gov. Nathan Deal earlier this year, is for each caseworker to have no more than 15 cases at any given time.

This summer, an initiative from the governor’s office allowed DFCS to add 278 caseworkers to its ranks. Between 15 and 20 of those positions went to region 2, which includes Hall, Forsyth and 11 smaller surrounding counties.

But caseloads remain heavy. Hall County DFCS officials say this is in part because some new workers are still in training, but there are also three to four new positions still unfilled.

In addition to the new positions, three or four existing ones need to be filled — turnover in the department is high. Statewide, three-quarters of case workers have been on the job for five years or fewer; of that, 20 percent have been there for less than one.

High turnover

Factors  contributing to turnover are numerous, and many times each exacerbates the other.

“You have people that have salaries that are lower than what they should be. You have very high caseloads and a lot of time away from their families, and it’s a very dangerous and stressful job,” Cagle said. “So all of those things really combine to make a situation that is ripe for turnover.”

Case manager associates make a starting annual salary of around $28,000, and case managers often work unpaid overtime.

“The caseworkers often find themselves in situations where they’re going to need to work extra hours and they get compensatory time for that,” said Kenny Jarvis, DFCS director for region 2. “If possible they’ll take that time off later, if they can find time to do so.”

With heavy caseloads, working compensatory time into busy schedules is not always possible for case managers. And the low pay, unmanageable workloads and a difficult work-life balance are just part of what makes the job so stressful. “Over time, it is very difficult for people to continually see bad things happen to children and be able to continue in the work,” Cagle said.

Holly Campolong, DFCS director for Hall and Dawson counties, began her career as a case manager in Athens. She said witnessing these situations was the hardest thing about the work.

“I think to see some of these absolute situations that you can’t describe in any other way than heartbreaking,” Campolong said. “The children, and the parents, too — when you hear the stories of the families and the parents, you think, no wonder.”

Campolong said it’s important for caseworkers to develop coping mechanisms and to find time for themselves.

Jackson leans on her faith to cope with the stress, and she sets aside time where she will not work unless there’s a real emergency.

“My weekends are my treasure time,” she said, but, “sometimes emergencies happen and you have to allow yourself to be OK with that.”

Jackson also tries to focus on what she loves about the job.

“We work the late hours because we care,” she said. “When children tell you, ‘Thank you for helping me,’ when you see parents for the first time living a sober life, and you get to see them be a parent. It keeps you going, keeps you wanting to help.”

It’s this reflection, and not talk of the difficulties of the job, that brings Jackson to tears.

That passion for helping struggling families is what keeps most long-term caseworkers on the job despite the hardships, Campolong said.

“I think it’s one of the most worthwhile jobs out there,” she said, “but there’s a heavy burden that comes with this work.”

“I’ve done many things in my career,” Cagle said. “By far the hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally is to walk up on a family’s front porch, knock on the door and tell them that I’m there to investigate them for maltreating their child.”

Putting families back together

Social work — that time spent directly with children, families and foster parents — is at the heart of the job, and is particularly important for reunifying children with their parents.

Reunification is the system’s first goal once a child’s safety is ensured. But this goal is made more difficult when case managers spend much of their time in court or buried in paperwork.

“The challenge to me is the caseworker really doesn’t have enough time to really do social work,” Jolliff said. “It is really a challenge to (reunify families) unless you can establish some connection with the parents.”

Jolliff acknowledges that court dates and paperwork are necessary, but says heavy caseloads upset the balance between these tasks and time that could be spent making those personal connections.

“It’s just lost in a 27-page written document called a case plan that outlines things that need to happen in the family,” Jolliff said. “There’s going to have to be a real effort to lower the caseload to a manageable number. ... We have them in court so much.”

Another major obstacle to reunification is the lack of foster homes in Hall County. In September, 180 Hall County kids were in DFCS custody, but there were only 25 foster homes. This leaves 72 percent of local children in DFCS custody to be placed outside the county.

When children are placed far away from their parents, visitation is more difficult. This can deal a lethal blow to reunification efforts.

“One of the things that is shown in study after study is that the ability to have regular visits between the child and their parents is a strong predictor of whether you’ll be able to successfully reunify the child with the parent and be safe,” Cagle said. “And so, that is a real focus for us is trying to get those additional foster care homes in specific counties where we need them.”

This is another problem exacerbated by staffing issues. In Hall County, there is no resource development case manager to train new foster parents. According to Campolong, many surrounding counties are without resource development staff as well.

To fill this gap, DFCS turns to outside resources for training and recruitment. Many foster parents work with private not-for-profit child-placing agencies, most of which are faith-based. In Hall County, 20 of the 25 current foster homes work through these agencies.

Campolong, who began her job with Hall in September, said she plans to reach out to the religious community in hopes of recruiting more foster parents.

“I think we can do a better job contacting them, letting them know the need,” Campolong said. “Once people know the need, many times they’re willing to help.”

Karl Lehman is the CEO of ChildKind, a child-placing agency specializing in the placement of children with significant medical problems.

“The thing that works for us is ... the recruiting of new foster parents typically comes from the current ones,” Lehman said. “The morale of good foster parents is extremely important in recruiting.”

Community support

Among all the things lacking in the foster system, not least is community support. Support is lacking, Lehman said, for everyone in the system, from children to caseworkers to foster parents.

For some families, especially where children have medical issues, community support could help prevent the need for the system to get involved at all.

“The thing that’s really common in these families is social isolation,” he said. “It’s very, very common that families are not able to get the kind of support services they need.”

Sometimes, families aren’t even aware those services are available.

“We had, for example, a child who had a cardiac arrest at a skating rink and had a head trauma,” Lehman said. “The high school gave her an honorary diploma. What the mother didn’t realize was that the school is supposed to provide support services until the child is 22. What happened was the mother lost her job.”

Once support is there — whether it’s in the form of good foster parents, more time with caseworkers or access to resources — children’s lives can take a whole new direction.

Jolliff said it’s important to remember the foster system is there to help children, even if the help is not always enough. He said support and understanding from the community could help the state do a better job.

“The state is a poor substitute as a parent,” he said, but “we as a community criticize with a broad brush.”

He said the community could start by letting elected officials know change is needed.

“We need to foster a climate within that agency that supports this work,” he said. “We remove children from a home that’s dangerous, but we place them in a system that’s not responsive either. That’s not just DFCS. That’s the whole system.”

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