Johnson County part of most understaffed Indiana DCS region

Staffing levels for family case managers meet 99% of the need statewide, according to the annual staffing and caseload report from the Department of Child Services (DCS), but some areas of the state face a greater need than others.

“Some of the most integral among the agency’s staff members are family case managers (FCMs). FCMs are the state’s front line against child abuse and neglect. Maintaining management caseloads for staff members is critical to ensuring the agency provides the best service possible to those in need,” DCS Director Eric Miller said in a report recently submitted to the Indiana State Budget Committee.

The agency compiles an annual report documenting its staffing needs following a series of scandals triggered by the resignation of Miller’s predecessor, Mary Bonaventura. In a scathing letter, Bonaventura claimed children would die following state funding cuts and subsequent, independent reviews found that DCS had a staffing crisis.

Legislative reform dictated that the agency “shall” meet certain goals when it came to FCMs, requiring more manageable caseloads and reducing the number of children overseen by individual staff.

Staffing details

DCS, the state’s third-largest agency, has 4,100 staff members and a little more than half of those are FCMs. But of those 2,100 FCMs, just 1,637 employees have an active caseload with another 158 FCMs in training. The remaining FCM staff oversee hotlines and licensing services within the agency.

However, the agency needs 24 additional FCMs to meet the required Child Welfare League of America standards limiting staff to:

  • No more than 12 cases (families) per month for caseworkers conducting child protection assessments
  • No more than 17 family cases for caseworkers providing ongoing support to families involved in child protective services
  • No more than 12 cases if caseworkers are conducting family-centered casework
  • No more than 12 to 15 children in out-of-home care

The report calls FCMs “some of the most integral” to the agency’s mission, whose “dedication helps prevent future maltreatment as families rebuild and learn to provide a safe environment for the loved ones in their care.”

Of the agency’s 19 regions, 10 meet staffing standards and an additional four have at least 90% of the staff they need. The statewide staffing level is 99%.

The report details staffing by region and county, with several areas in southern Indiana below the ideal range. Region 14, which covers Bartholomew, Jackson, Jennings, Johnson and Shelby counties had the biggest staffing shortage, with just 74% of FCM need met.

However, two counties in the area — Jackson and Jennings — were fully staffed. Bartholomew had just over half, 53%, while Johnson had 64% and Shelby had 70%.

With 12-weeks of training, replacing staff isn’t as easy as hiring a new person — especially since recent graduates don’t immediately handle a full caseload. And DCS, like other employers, has had difficulty retaining and recruiting employees in a tight labor market with a historically low unemployment rate.

In Fiscal Year 2023 — a period of time from July 1, 2022 to June 31, 2023, which is the calendar for the state budget — DCS reported losing 739 FCMs and hiring another 890.

One factor the agency cited was low pay, something noted in the 2022 State Personnel Department compensation study. Prior to that initiative, pay started at $35,776 and increased to $40,092 after the 12-week training period. Following the study, pay started at $47,320.

Increasing salaries helped with retention but “challenges remain(ed) due to the difficult nature of the work.”

The report details recruitment efforts such as increasing the number of job fairs from 15 to 25, visiting colleges and universities, and hosting interview events at offices with five or more openings.

The importance of FCMs, families

High FCM turnover, according to the report, “can” result in: longer foster care stays for children, delays in timely assessments of allegations of abuse and neglect, disruptions in child placements and increased rates of repeat maltreatment.

“Supporting family case managers is paramount to ensuring the best service for the children in DCS’ care,” the report said.

The agency uses a six-month caseload average but “strives to hire 120% of its six-month average need of family case managers during October, November and December of each year to be prepared for one of the busiest times each year, which is March through May.”

Case numbers trended down in fiscal year 2023, with a total of 14,163 children interacting with DCS through informal adjustments, collaborative care or “child in need of services” (CHINS) compared to 15,838 the previous year — a decrease of over 10%.

Between months caseloads also fluctuated from a low of 6,797 in July 2022 to a high of 9,651 in September 2022.

The agency highlighted several areas where it said it succeeded, including: fewer families in need of formal intervention, fewer children in residential care, fewer children who experienced repeat maltreatment and improved ratio of supervisors to case managers.

One effort potentially having an impact and decreasing the number of children in DCS’ system: kinship care, or family members raising children when their biological parents are unable to do so.

In the latest budget cycle, DCS pushed to add a $300 monthly stipend for kinship caregivers, who are typically unlicensed and don’t qualify for foster care payments.

Additionally, calls to Indiana’s 24-hour Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline were down in the last year.

“While the hotline has historically seen an increase in reports year over year, there has been a recent plateau and reduction in the number of reports generated …” the report said, listing calls per year. “From (fiscal year) 2016 to (fiscal year) 2019, the hotline received a 14% increase in reports. This is believed to be due in large part to increased awareness of the hotline.

“In (fiscal year) 2023, the hotline saw a 4% reduction in reports since the previous year.”

By Whitney Downard – The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.