Editorials, Opinion

CPS death spiral

We were all horrified by the discovery of two teenagers locked in a shed in Sissonville early this month. It quickly became clear that the home had been reported to both police officers and Child Protective Services multiple times over several months. The cops responded a few times but didn’t find anything that would require them to take action. It appears that CPS never responded at all.

Unfortunately, the Department of Health and Human Resources has provided unsatisfactory answers. Initially, it avoided questions by saying it couldn’t share information about children. Of course, no one was asking for the children’s personal information. We were all asking how CPS let them fall through the cracks.

A little more than a week ago, the incoming secretary for Department of Human Services, Dr. Cynthia Persily, gave equally unsatisfactory answers to legislators. When she wasn’t trying to throw regional supervisors and CPS workers under the bus, she talked in vague circles about policies and changes.

The DHHR (soon to be DHS) must be transparent about what happened and why. The public deserves to be informed. Plus, if the DHHR is honest about systemic issues, it might find allies and helpers coming from unexpected places.

We do not want to spend this editorial villainizing CPS workers. What happened in Sissonville is a specific illustration of a pervasive problem.

The child welfare situation increasingly looks like it’s entering a death spiral — a bad situation that can only get worse.

Nationally, on-the-ground caseworkers stay on the job less than two years (it takes 5-6 months to be fully trained), and the turnover rate is between 14% and 22%, according to a 2018 study, and it puts West Virginia squarely in that range. But a DHHR Bureau for Children and Families audit put the turnover rate at 27% in 2019.

Why is turnover so high? Stress, burnout, high-stakes-low-reward work … None of this is new to conventional wisdom, but a 2014 analysis actually measured it: “stress and burnout had medium to high influence on turnover intention.” Translation: More stress and burnout equals more likely to quit.

CPS workers frequently point to unmanageable caseloads as a source of stress and burnout. National standards suggest no more than 12-18 cases per worker. In 2019, a BCF report found that when caseloads were calculated based on positions filled, the caseloads for individual workers averaged around 20 but went as high as 45. That doesn’t include the backlogs; a Berkley County judge recently testified to the Legislature that caseworkers in his area have more than 125 cases when they should only have 30. (We could not verify his claim.)

With that many cases, it’s no wonder CPS workers can’t follow up on reports of abuse within 72 hours or resolve investigations within 30 days, let alone check in with every child and family assigned to them. And that may have been a big factor in how the kids in Sissonville fell through the cracks.

This is why we say CPS looks like it’s in a death spiral. Vacancy rates have improved, but every unfilled position means extra cases for existing workers. More cases lead to more stress and exposure to traumatic situations. More stress and trauma equal more burnout, so more people quit. More people quitting means more vacancies. And the cycle repeats.

Increasing pay for CPS workers seems to have helped: It dropped the job vacancy rate from 33% last year to 16% this year. But it would be better in West Virginia did more to attract and retain actual social workers, including offering significantly higher pay for people who already have the requisite degree and training. (Right now, almost anyone with a bachelor’s degree can be hired and operate on a provisional social work license.) This could also boost the quality of CPS’s work. 

Even higher pay may not be enough. Child protective services work is emotionally difficult; West Virginia should look into creating stronger support systems, including therapy, that could help to retain workers longer than two years.