Rock County Human Services chief disputes foster parent complaints, Gazette report

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Aug. 23—JANESVILLE — Rock County Human Services Department Director Kate Luster said she was on vacation earlier this month when she learned that at the Rock County Board meeting on Aug. 12 several foster parents and county Child Protective Services staff had shared a raft of concerns about her department's handling of its caseload.

Luster said she received a number of calls from county board supervisors relaying the worries they heard from foster parents and local media over CPS staff turnover and low morale—charges she said mischaracterized the agency's ability to do its work.

Health Services officials have been under the microscope the past few weeks over an apparent high turnover among case workers and a backlog of incomplete paperwork that many foster parents and CPS workers fear could result in at-risk children falling through the cracks.

Luster said she and her department don't deny staff turnover is an issue or that state data ranks Rock County among the slowest in the state at completing intake paperwork for children and families being investigated for home services or foster care.

In an interview with The Gazette late last week, Luster said foster parents and local news media have mischaracterized reports that her department and Alia, a paid consultant from Minnesota, had intended for view only by departmental staff.

One of the reports, an Alia-authored summary of CPS workers' concerns gathered through focus groups conducted in 2020, called the working environment for Human Services' caseworkers "the worst it's ever been."

That report and another 2019 survey by Alia of a small group focused on foster parents has prompted calls for the county to further probe turnover and strife within its child welfare system.

Dozens of parents and current and former CPS workers have recently told The Gazette that they blame high turnover in the child welfare system on a change in philosophy within Human Services that has shifted resources away from foster care and toward reunifying children with their birth families.

That philosophy, foster parents argue, is in keeping with the 2018 federal Families First Act, which emphasizes monitoring of at-risk children in their birth families' homes.

Luster said an Aug. 13 Gazette report on the county's Children Youth and Families workforce presented a distorted picture of worker turnover and the scope of problems within the county's Human Services and foster care systems.

She said her department actually has made strides this year to stem staff turnover, and she said the department has created a new position to analyze the county's growing trend in casework backlogs, which state data show has increased every year since 2016.

Luster claims her department in recent weeks has stemmed turnover levels to within 30% to 40%—a rate of employee churn she said falls within acceptable limits, based on federal benchmarks. She said the department, as of this month, is close to being caught up with a backlog of initial child evaluations that state data showed in July was 60% unfinished.

Luster said a Gazette analysis of staffing charts that showed an 88% turnover rate of CPS assessment and support staff since 2016 is an inaccurate calculation of worker departures. Luster said her calculations, which factor in reorganization and reassignment of workers within the department, show the rate of turnover since 2016 sits at about 70%.

Luster's own count would show the turnover rate on average has ramped up 20% since 2016, according to an internal Human Services report from that year.

Yet, even in 2016, the Human Services Department was scrambling to find ways to stem staff departures that at the time had led to about a 50% turnover of employees.

In a 2016 Human Services Department summary of staffing issues, it was suggested that the high turnover among child welfare caseworkers could result in "shortcuts in children's case management" and "an increased risk in the safety of children we serve."

Source of info misattributed

An Aug. 13 Gazette report misattributed the county's internal report as being authored by Alia. The Minnesota consultant's work on behalf of the health department was limited to "workforce wellness" inventories of CPS and foster care completed in 2020 and 2021.

The Alia reports reflected low levels of engagement and burnout experienced by some Human Services staff and foster parents. A report from Alia released to the Human Services Department in April 2021 revealed that several department employees felt "belittled, undervalued and defeated" in an environment in which they feared to speak out.

Alia officials told The Gazette via email that it surveyed only a segment of the department's workforce and foster parents and Luster said the evaluations and two related reports that Alia generated were meant only for internal use by Human Services and CPS officials—not for view by the Rock County Board or the greater public.

The two Alia reports were leaked to the local news media and some county board members.

Luster called the Alia reports a "mechanism for internal, organizational culture change to help give staff a forum for discussion and support" and to "build trust." Luster said her department had already begun to address the problems identified by the reports when they were made public.

Luster said the leak of the Alia reports could cause "immeasurable harm" to the health and safety of the county's Human Services Department and its mission. She said their unauthorized release could further hobble hiring efforts at a time when child welfare agencies statewide are struggling to recruit and retain workers.

Reports not shared

County board member Pam Bostwick, a Janesville resident who is a member of the county's Human Services Committee and a retired longtime CPS worker in Rock County, was elected to the board in 2020.

Bostwick, who retired from CPS in 2008, told The Gazette that she is troubled that all of Alia's wellness work and reports generated were not shared with the Human Services Committee or the full county board until someone leaked them.

Bostwick said she began hearing staffing concerns in Human Services in 2019, before she was on the county board.

Bostwick said she favors the county looking deeper into CPS worker turnover, and in the coming weeks, she expects people to continue publicly voicing concerns over the county's child welfare system.

"From what I'm understanding, these concerns are definitely valid," Bostwick said. "People want things done. They don't want things to fall on deaf ears."

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