If county supervisors keep a $138,887 line item in the proposed fiscal year 2018 budget to hire two additional workers in Child Protective Services, it will come as a welcome relief to the overworked employees in that department.
Two new positions could make a big difference, agency leaders say.
The Council on Accreditation, a nonprofit that develops standards for human services organizations, recommends child protective services workers carry no more than 15 to 18 cases at a time and conduct no more than eight new case investigations per month. But Hope Stonerook, acting director of the Loudoun Department of Family Services, said the people in Loudoun’s CPS unit carried an average of 25 active cases in 2016.
“We’re 24/7,” Stonerook said. “There’s always someone on call. The state has a hotline as well, but in the middle of the night, if the sheriff’s department finds something, they know how to get our workers on call.”
Stonerook said CPS had 103 valid complaints in January alone. In 2016, they received 2,285 calls, 1,209 of which were deemed to be valid complaints, meeting the definition of what falls under CPS’s purview. That includes allegations of physical neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse against a person younger than 18 years old, perpetrated by a person in caretaker roles, such as a parent, babysitter, or coach. In most cases, CPS’s goal is not to take the children away and launch a criminal investigation, but to find a way to work with the family.
“The goal of CPS is to make sure that children are safe, but that the family is preserved,” Stonerook said.
“CPS is really about providing services for families, and for keeping families together,” said Child Services Administrator Heather Dziewulski. “I think of lot people misunderstand that. They think CPS is somehow a scary, bad thing, and there are occasions when there is an egregious situation, but for the most part, it’s being able to help people.”
But that work isn’t easy.
The department currently has 22 positions, including nine social workers who investigate and assess cases, five social workers who provide ongoing support to families, two intake workers, two case aides, two field supervisors, a division manager, and a prevention worker who tries to get to families before they wind up in a CPS casefile.
County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s proposed budget includes one additional field supervisor and one more family services worker. Stonerook estimates between the two extra staff positions and filling some positions that have been vacant because of turnover—which can be normal turnover, or because they leave for better-paying departments that don’t require them to be on-call 24 hours a day—the department can bring caseloads down to about 16 per worker. About $51,000 of the extra cost is expected to be offset by additional state funding.
With the current caseload, Dziewulski said, workers often have to establish priorities for the parts of the job that have the most impact. That, she said, sometimes means state-mandated paperwork deadlines get delayed.
“That’s important, that we meet that guideline, but it’s not as critically important as meeting the needs of the family, so we’re always going to choose the family first,” Dziewulski said. “We’re making a purposeful, mindful decision about where things have to give a little bit in order to make sure kids and families are safe, but also to make sure our staff are safe.”
And expanding the department may help protect staff from a problem in a job with long hours and high stress: burnout.
“It’s secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue,” Dziewulski said. For caseworkers, an occupational hazard. “One of the things that reduces compassion fatigue is a person’s ability to do something. What research has shown is that compassion fatigue increases when the system itself doesn’t work. So if we were to say, ‘your paperwork is the most important thing, do that first,’ we would boost our compassion fatigue,” she said.
Between the emotional burden of handling child abuse cases and the homes the CPS workers go, it can be a dangerous job. Family services specialist Sarah Gabrielson was at first nervous to give her last name for an interview, since she sometimes works with families that may have gang involvement—but then realized she’s giving her business card out to those families anyway.
“Just a generality, we go into homes where there are drugs and weapons,” Gabrielson. She recalled a recent, unannounced visit to a home for a case about supervision of very young children: “While I was in the home just taking a tour, like you would do anywhere you go, there were firearms throughout the home.”
Gabrielson said it takes a while to learn the right work-life balance.
“There is a really high burnout rate with social workers, and especially CPS workers,” Gabrielson said. “I’ve been doing the work for just about six years, and I love working with the families, and I think you do have to have a desire and a passion to do this type of work.”
The CPS team works to support each other, and the department is cognizant not only of the trauma inflicted on the children it works to protect, but also on the workers it sends out. Workers and supervisors meet to talk about what they’ve seen, and supervisors make sure workers are taking care of themselves.
“For myself, for the work-life balance, being able to turn it off at a certain time, and spend time with my own family, and I think that for me that’s really helpful,” Gabrielson said. “Doing things to relieve the stress. I just started a yoga class.”
And the additional help, say the CPS professionals, will make a difference to the people they serve, Loudoun’s most vulnerable.
“We do this for a reason,” Gabrielson said. “We all enjoy working with the families and doing this work, and sometimes it can be challenging, because there isn’t enough time to really do everything that you may want to do with the family or the case.”