Challenges Facing Florida’s Child Welfare System

Challenges Facing Florida’s Community Based Child Welfare System
TaxWatch Report, November 2015

Protecting Florida’s abused, abandoned, neglected, and at-risk youth is an issue near and dear to the hearts of many Floridians, and the state’s community-based child welfare system is responsible for the care and well-being of many of these children and adolescents. Currently, there are more than 22,000 children in foster care across the state of Florida, many of whom arrive in foster care as victims of abuse and/or neglect. Sadly, that number that continues to grow.
In recent years, shifts in child welfare system practices have increased the number of children being brought to the attention of Florida’s child welfare system. Investments in services that prevent child removals (the need to remove children from their homes) and improve permanency outcomes (outcomes resulting in adoption or reunification with the child’s original family) have not expanded or changed to meet these shifts in practice. For many years, the statewide core funding for the state’s community-based child welfare system has been relatively stagnant or even reduced. Accounting for inflation, funding for community-based care providers has decreased by almost 13 percent. This lack of adequate financial resources drives up caseloads and leads to case manager workforce instability. These service and workforce issues contribute to increased demand for child welfare and result in longer stays in the system and negative child permanency outcomes, at great taxpayer expense.
Workforce Instability
The annual turnover rate among case managers in Florida averages 37 percent statewide, but can run as
high as 80 percent in certain areas. 22 While low pay likely plays a part (Florida’s child, family, and school social workers make almost 10 percent less than the national average), 23 research shows that pay is not the most important factor in case managers’ career decisions.
Most case managers see their profession as more of a calling than an occupation.24 Of the most
competent case managers in Florida, over 96 percent say that their greatest job satisfaction comes from
helping children.25 What does have an impact on turnover are workloads and environments.
Case managers often work extensive hours, and enter extremely difficult, at times life-threatening,

The weight of these situations, plus frequent contact with traumatized children and high
caseloads due to insufficient staffing levels, can result in stress disorders that exhibit many of the same
symptoms as post-traumatic stress, leading to burnout and depression among many case managers,
causing them to resign. 26

Workforce instability also takes a toll on children in the system. As case managers leave their positions,
their cases are handed off to new case managers, resulting in delays in the timeliness of children’s
permanency outcomes as new case managers need to be trained and familiarized with children’s
situations. These create inefficiencies that lead to longer stays, higher caseloads, and increased demand on the system.

To demonstrate the severity of this issue, research examining children coming into the child welfare
system and exiting to permanency within a 21 month period showed that a child in foster care who only
has one case manager in that time frame has the highest (75 percent) chance of either being reunited with his or her family or becoming part of another family through adoption, while the transition of that child’s case to a second manager drops the likelihood of those outcomes to 17.5 percent.27 Having four managers within the 21 month period saw the child’s chances drop to 2 percent.28 Of children with 6 or 7 case managers during the given timeframe, 0.1 percent were adopted or reunited with their families home.29

While the severity of these results occur due to higher numbers of case managers handling individual
cases over a short period of time, they indicate that case manager turnover (and the transfer of cases) can have a significant impact on the outcomes of children coming into state care. All the more reason state investment in front-end services that prevent child removals and maintain child safety in-home, as well as back-end services that help children already under state care achieve permanency, are so important.

Workforce and service issues not only contribute to increased demand and fewer positive child outcomes, but also pose a significant economic problem for taxpayers. The cost of turnover for one case manager (comprised of, at minimum, costs for additional training and recruitment) falls around $10,000.41 Florida employs almost 3,800 case managers,42 of which an estimated 37 percent (approximately 1,400) resign and are replaced within one year, which costs the state approximately $14 million annually.
To continue improving the child welfare system while maintaining child safety, Florida TaxWatch recommends that Florida:

• Implement services that improve accessibility and availability of child welfare services at all stages of the system, with an emphasis on prevention services that serve at-risk families in their homes and that give case managers more flexibility to serve the families with which they interact.
• Initiate programs that stabilize and provide opportunities to grow the child welfare workforce, particularly programs that provide early educational opportunities for exposure to the field and help case managers cope with workplace stressors.

These solutions have the potential to alleviate caseloads and stress for employees in child welfare as well as improve outcomes for Florida’s most vulnerable children, but they cannot come to fruition without state investment. Higher levels of stable, recurring resources for child welfare in Florida would improve the system’s services array as well as bolster and expand the work force. This will result in shorter stays in the system and better permanency outcomes for child welfare-involved youth, as well as reduced caseloads and turnover among case managers, ensuring the mutual success of the child welfare system in general as well as the children it serves.
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