Child welfare social worker shortage leads to high caseload

It’s a problem that’s plagued Hawaii’s Child Welfare Services Branch for years — not enough social workers to properly handle all of the cases of child abuse and neglect.

Currently, CWS has 170 social workers, but that’s not enough to maintain a manageable case load, says the head of the branch formerly known as CPS.

KHON2 asked: “Is this affecting the kids in any way?”

“I hope not and I would say no because we have been able to at least visit our children,” Child Welfare Services Branch administrator Kayle Perez said.

According to a Department of Human Services report, a hiring freeze from October 2013 to January 2014 “hindered staff recruitment and lowered morale” for CWS.

And during that period, “…some social workers have had difficulty managing their cases, unable to transfer, close, and log their contacts on a timely and consistent basis.”

Currently, there are 31 job openings, and that’s just for social workers. There’s an additional 16 job openings for support staff.

Some social workers handle the cases for as many as 20 to 30 families, which Perez says is double the ideal amount.

KHON2 asked: “Does that affect the response time or amount of time that you spend to investigate whether or not the child should be returned to his parents or her parents?”

Perez responded: “Let’s take a few steps back. One of the key things is our response time to a new report of an abuse. So has it affected that? No it hasn’t. We’ve been pretty good about responding to reports of safety or harm to the children.”

She added — their priority is to reunite kids with their parents.

“When I first started working in child welfare, we as social workers felt if we didn’t reunify the child with his parents then it was a failure. That has since turned around and the focus has been on really safety, permanency and well being of children,” Perez said.

In 2014, there were more than 2,000 reports of child abuse or neglect investigated in the state. Those cases involved more than 3,600 children.

To help with response, CWS started public private partnerships with agencies like Catholic Charities to help with services like family counseling.

“Has it affected our monthly face to face? Yes and that’s why we’ve contracted with the community agencies to help us do that,” Perez said.

CWS has tried recruiting at the local colleges to fill the vacancies

Starting pay for social workers is $45,000 a year. Would paying them more help?

“My first response would be yes, but through experience I think if you’re not right for the job, I don’t think any amount of money would keep you,” Perez said. “We don’t know what things will look like when we fill all these positions because it’s dependent on reports and number of kids and families coming into the families but it’s hopeful that once we can fill all the positions that we will have a manageable case load.”

The areas that have the most job openings for child welfare social workers are Oahu, Maui, and West Hawaii on the Big Island.

Perez says for many social workers here in the islands, once they get the job they stay on the job for many years.


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