A group of local foster parents, teachers and Rock County Child Protective Services workers are asking the county board to launch an internal probe into what they call ineffective management and near total employee turnover among some groups of social workers they say is hampering parts of the county’s foster care system.
On Thursday, nine local parents read to the county board letters they and others had written about employee turnover and a shift in operating philosophies the county’s Human Services Department’s leaders have made within the foster care system over the last few years.
The parents say that since then-President Donald Trump’s 2018 Families First Act—a set of laws designed to overhaul the foster care funding system and stave off the use of foster care—Rock County’s Human Services Department has adopted changes parents believe have led to a mass exodus of longtime county CPS staff.
Parents say that has left the county with a growing morass of unfinished paperwork and a curtailing of investigations that has left hundreds of vulnerable, local children in the foster care pipeline in limbo, awaiting services or decisions about placement with families.
What’s worse, local foster parents say, is that for the last two years they and rank-and-file CPS staff have tried to address leadership problems in the county’s Human Services and CPS divisions that have progressively deepened.
They say that due to a flood of staff resignations and turnover in the ranks of local foster parents, more and more children in need of parents are slipping through the cracks—and it has all happened without many in the county noticing.
For parts of the last four years, the county has seen a nearly 90% turnover rate in the county’s Children, Youth and Families division's CPS caseworker ranks. Those are workers who are responsible for child welfare investigations, child placement and management of individual foster care cases.
Five years of county staffing reports and organizational charts obtained by The Gazette show Rock County CPS worker turnover among CPS staff in child assessments and ongoing casework teams has ramped up from 57% in 2016 to 88% over the last few years.
Since 2016, 65 employees have left child assessment and ongoing support roles in the county’s foster care division. Overall, organizational charts show most positions have been refilled and organizational charts show some re-crafting of divisions that make up CPS's assessment, ongoing support and child diversion.
But as of spring 2021, one inventory shows only three assessment and ongoing support CPS workers originally on staff in 2016 remain in place.
According to organizational charts, the rest of
The staff departures have continued even as the county has moved through a set of independent assessments by Minnesota-based child welfare consultant Alia in 2019 and 2021.
One analysis from 2016 found county CPS employees citing “workload stress and burnout”—not employee pay—as being the single biggest reason they wanted to leave their jobs.
Parents speak up
One local foster parent, Janesville resident David Godek, told the board his family has cared for an infant for six months, but he said the family is still waiting for Human Services to fully evaluate the child.
Godek said he has “begged” the county to handle the child’s casework, a routine evaluation any infant child would get under foster care.
“Foster parents should not have to beg for services to help these children, but sadly, this frequently happens in this county,” Godek said.
Godek said another child he fostered has been in the county’s CPS pipeline for more than five years, but the county still hasn’t moved to establish a permanent living arrangement for the child—an arrangement he said has left the child feeling confused and angry.
Multiple foster parents and county CPS staff say they’ve been scared to speak up for fear they won’t get foster children placed with them. CPS workers said in open letters to the board they worry they’ll be fired, demoted or marginalized if they voice ideas that run contrary to the county’s shifts in the foster system.
Reuniting families not always best
Parents say some decisions pushed by Human Services leadership seem only aimed at the county meeting benchmarks under the 2018 federal Families First bill, which was aimed at prioritizing the reunification of birth families with their fostered children.
That’s not always in the best interests of the children, the foster parents argue, and that has led some longtime caseworkers and foster parents in Rock County to quit in frustration. Foster parents say the high employee turnover can set back some children’s casework months.
“The (Human Services) department’s slavish devotion to (birth family) reunification at any cost has consequences. That’s the bottom line. The department is so focused on giving (birth) parents chance after chance after chance to get their lives in order, and this is how a child remains in limbo for over five years,” Godek told the board.
In a set of open letters obtained by The Gazette—some signed, some unsigned—a Milton School District administrator wrote of her dissatisfaction with a lack of communication with the county’s foster care officials. The administrator said she is routinely unable to reach county caseworkers to discuss strategies or plans for children at her school who are under foster care.
That’s in part, some local foster parents say, because Rock County is among a minority of counties that has opted to shield most foster children’s case information from teachers and foster parents—two entities who spend significant amounts of time working with children in the foster care system.
An internal boil down of turnover data by Rock County's Human Service's Department going back to 2016 indicates that high CPS staffing turnover leads to “shortcuts” in case management and an “increased risk for the safety of children” as they meander through foster care, according to case reports.
Meanwhile, the county is on pace this year to conduct the fewest initial screenings for children being considered for foster care services since 2016. The county as of July was overdue on completing more than half of those screenings.
Backlog of cases
Rock County’s CPS workers screened 1,114 children in 2016. So far this year, just under half that number of children—534 in all—had been screened.
State data for 2021 indicates that the county has completed in a timely manner just 44% of initial screenings for foster care services. That has created a backlog in CPS casework that has grown dramatically every year since 2016.
In 2016, the county ranked among the top in the state with a 94% rate of timely completion of initial child screenings. As of July this year, the county had capped just 44% of initial child screenings. This year, the data shows, just a handful of counties the state’s DCF analyzes had a worse track record than Rock County for completing initial investigations.
On Thursday, county board supervisors did not address the parents, who read not only their own letters but letters from teachers and former and current county CPS workers.
The parents spoke during the meeting’s public comment section, and their concerns and the foster care system were not items scheduled for board discussion or action.
The foster parents and county workers said the problems—and some of Alia’s reports detailing them—have been shielded from county board attention by Human Services administrators.
Committee deemed secret, ineffectual
The county committee of foster parents and county foster system officials charged with charting and discussing the system's well-being has never met in an open, public session. And as of this week, the committee is not listed on the county’s website. Its meeting minutes aren’t readily available.
Milton resident Peg Cadd, a former foster parent for three decades and former member of the county's foster care committee, told The Gazette the ad hoc group put together a new program on child car seats, but she and others said the panel mostly talks in circles and rarely takes action.
Cadd and other parents are asking the county to do an independent investigation of the Human Services Department’s handling of the foster care system, and they’re asking for the county to publicly release its findings.
She told the board that the panel—the second such group in six years assembled to deal with reported issues in the foster care system—has for most of the last two years been “pacified, shut out and dismissed.”
At times, Cadd said the group has aired some grievances, but it hasn’t led to actions by the Human Services Department or the county.
Cadd told The Gazette that the committee at times felt more like an introductory Lamaze breathing class than a panel tackling the deficiencies of the county’s foster care system.
“They’d have us stop and do calm breathing exercises whenever tough conversations came up,” Cadd said.
This article has been amended from an earlier version to reflect Rock County CPS social worker turnover trends between 2016 and 2021. An earlier version had reported the trend reflected turnover between 2018 and 2021. Turnover among the CPS's social worker staff that handles the foster system's child intake screening and investigations and ongoing support has left just three of 42 employees who on staff in 2016 still in place.