Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission’s searing December report on foster care in Virginia launched a reform effort that has so far funneled millions of dollars toward the system.

But foster care was just the most recent area within social services that the watchdog agency scrutinized. In 2020, it is due to analyze child protective services, the program that includes receiving, responding to and investigating reports of child abuse or neglect.

Just as few involved in social services were surprised by the findings in JLARC’s foster care report, so too are they anticipating that the commission will find problems in CPS rooted in the same foundational shortcomings plaguing foster care: too few workers, high caseloads and a decades-old training system that hasn’t been updated to meet the needs of a modern workforce.

“It’s obvious that there are systems issues. It’s not one person or one locality,” said Lisa Specter-Dunaway, CEO of Families Forward, a child welfare advocacy organization. “If you look at the root cause, it’s all about personnel.”

As of March, nearly 20 percent of family services specialist positions, which provide child and adult protective services, were vacant, according to the state. The turnover rate in the 2018 calendar year ranged from 25 to 50 percent for some positions.

While the reform effort directed at foster care has attempted to alleviate some of the problems, it doesn’t affect the entire social services system, nor does it correct the systematic struggles related to recruiting and retaining social workers, which have persisted for years.

The JLARC foster care report notes that, when a local CPS department “does not function as it should, local departments can miss or fail to respond appropriately to situations in which children are actively experiencing maltreatment — and may need to be removed from their homes for their safety.”

Putting out fires

Like almost all things related to social services in Virginia, the 120 local departments spread across the state are responsible for administering child protective services, including receiving, responding to and investigating reports of child abuse or neglect.

Local staff must determine and document if an allegation of child maltreatment is founded. The case might also require a family assessment, in which the local staff provides ongoing prevention and case management services to the family.

Salaries and staff sizes can vary between social services departments depending on how much funding they receive from their locality. Some simply have more resources than others.

“Not every agency in the system, but there are some agencies in the system that are really understaffed and don’t have enough people to, number one, make timely responses, and number two, be able to thoroughly provide ongoing services,” said Rick Verilla, assisted director of York-Poquoson Social Services.

Data on how often local departments are meeting requirements set for them by laws and regulations — like how quickly they must respond to certain allegations or how they need to document their work — paints a portrait of a system in which workers struggle to keep their heads above water, caught in a cycle of constantly putting out fires and responding to crises.

“My staff can’t finish a case because they can’t stop responding,” said Andy Crawford, director of the Bedford Department of Social Services and president of the League of Social Services Executives. “All they do is meet the immediate response.”

According to data from the Virginia Department of Social Services for the 2018 fiscal year, local departments generally do well in making that first response to a report of child abuse or neglect. They must do so within 24 or 48 hours, or five business days depending on the circumstances reported.

When it comes to actually making contact with a child victim, though, they’re not quite as successful. In 79.9 percent of cases, local departments are compliant with the requirement to make contact with the child within the allotted time frame. They’re not compliant in 9.6 percent of cases, and the compliancy is unknown for 10.6 percent — like when it’s not documented properly. The department notes, though, that many cases were likely documented correctly later.

“We certainly would like for that to be higher,” said Carl Ayers, the director of the Division of Family Services for DSS. “But we can’t find people sometimes.”

Documentation

The data on responses and making contact shows workers trying to deal with crises and reports of maltreatment as they arise. But the ball is inevitably dropped when it comes to documentation and completing investigations. Except in some circumstances when the worker can request extensions, a CPS report must be completed within 45 days of receipt, according to DSS.

But only 32 percent of cases were closed within 45 days in the 2017 fiscal year. Nearly as many took more than 90 days to close.

“We’re getting out to everybody as soon as we can get to them, so the thing that falls to the backburner is going back in and doing all your documentation, putting it in the system, getting it approved, having the supervisor approve it,” Ayers said. “The reality is you’re just having them go into longer time frames because we do not have the workforce to be able to get them through.”

To help local workers deal with the documentation that numerous laws and regulations require, Ayers asked the General Assembly to let him put some funding toward a new mobile app that is due to roll out in the late fall of this year.

“We’ve created this mass of requirements but we haven’t ever given them the tools to ease that mass of requirements,” Ayers said. “So that’s why the technology and mobile conversation is so important to ease some of those regulations so that workers can handle everything that’s required of them, and ensure that our kids are safe.”

Existing scrutiny

While JLARC is due to conduct a thorough assessment of child protective services in 2020, the agency has already looked into the program in both past reports and its most recent deep dive into foster care. Also, the state Department of Social Services and regional staff routinely review samples of child protective services cases from local departments.

In a 2005 review of the program, JLARC identified some problems that still persist, noting that, “CPS staff in some localities indicated that inadequate funding and staffing limit them to providing only a minimum level of support to families who are not categorized as high risk.”

Largely, the deficiencies the state has outlined in local departments relate to timeliness and documentation, according to JLARC’s December foster care report.

But the report also states that, in 24 percent of 3,867 CPS cases that the state sampled, “key participants were not interviewed,” and that regional staff “have documented the same concerns across multiple annual reviews for some departments — indicating that problems with the administration of CPS in those departments are not being resolved after local departments have been made aware of them.”

Problems in CPS could also impact foster care because it “may contribute to an undercounting of the extent to which children in foster care actually experience maltreatment.”

“The obvious statement is: There needs to be more money put into the system,” said Specter-Dunaway, the CEO of Families Forward. “When you look at all the personnel-related issues, that’s what DSS is: It’s people. That’s what child welfare is. And so, until you address that, you know, we’re not going to see any big improvements.”

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Katie O'Connor
Katie, a Manassas native, has covered health care, commercial real estate, law, agriculture and tourism for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond BizSense and the Northern Virginia Daily. Last year, she was named an Association of Health Care Journalists Regional Health Journalism Fellow, a program to aid journalists in making national health stories local and using data in their reporting. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, where she was executive editor of The Flat Hat, the college paper, and editor-in-chief of The Gallery, the college’s literary magazine.