Low pay, high number of caseloads and turnover haunt Kentucky's foster care system

11/09/2017 05:10 PM

FRANKFORT – More than 11,000 children were in the Kentucky out-of-home care system at some time during 2016, a 15.4 percent increase since 2012.

Members of the Program Review and Investigations Committee were learning on Thursday some of the problems within the system.

The Legislative Research Commission (LRC) presented a report outlining the major problem areas and recommendations related to out-of-home care court proceedings, the accuracy and reporting of child welfare workers’ caseloads, and the hiring and retention of child welfare caseworkers.

In reviewing the major issues, everything appears to be related to high workload and low pay.

Shane Stephens, of the LRC, told committee members one of the biggest concerns with the foster care system is the extremely slow process of working on cases which is brought on by a low number of caseworkers.

“As of December 2016, there were over 27,000 child protective service cases in Kentucky which were assigned to approximately 1100 case workers, and resulted in an average caseload of 25 cases,” Stephens said.

Retired Jefferson County Family Court Judge Patricia Walker-Fitzgerald agreed with Stephens, saying that the emotional toll on overworked social workers leads to burnout, with many leaving their jobs.

“They’re the ones who see those cuts and bruises, burns and children with broken bones, and then they put incredible pressure on them in terms of caseloads,” Fitzgerald said. “We need the paperwork, we need the documentation that they do, but they desperately need help.”

Legal representation for all parties is also an important factor in foster care and adoption cases, and Fitzgerald says that currently, many attorneys want nothing to do with these cases because of a badly outdated pay scale that’s been in place for over 30 years.

“We established a fee structure of $250 per case in 1985, and that fee structure has never been reviewed,” Fitzgerald said. “Right now, an attorney who represents a child or a parent in a district court is paid $250 for the life of a case, a case which might go on for several years. Two-hundred-and fifty dollars is the going hourly rate these days.”

Other professionals at the bottom end of the pay scale are the family court judges which hear the cases.

Fitzgerald says the low pay is enough to keep some good potential judges from ever taking the jobs to begin with.

“It’s starting to impact who see wanting to be judges,” Fitzgerald said. “If you want people who are really excellent practitioners, if you want to recruit them, if you want to retain them, you’re going to have to take a look at judicial salaries.”

The number of children in out-of-home care who are available for adoption has increased by more than 17 percent since 2012. Over the past 5 years, only about 44 percent of the children in out-of-home care who are available for adoption are adopted annually.


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