Thursday, May 29, 2008

The "800 New Case Manager" Gorilla

Let’s start with a humanitarian principle that nobody (sane) will dispute:

“Children shouldn’t die.”

Now let’s add a political principle that is equally above dispute:

“If you are a politician, and your office is connected to a child’s death, even remotely, nasty headlines follow and angry citizens will want you charged with criminal offenses and inflicted with the same injuries suffered by the child.”

Yeah, none too pleasant for a public servant. And here begins your lesson in “political fecal gravity,” gentle readers. It is stated thusly:

"When the dookie hits the oscillating unit, it always trickles down."

Too many children were dying in DCS’ care, so the Governor decided he wanted to double the number of family case managers. The thinking was that each case manager had too many cases to visit enough with foster parents or biological parents who were close to reunifying with their children. As a result, corners were cut, indicators were missed, and bad things happened. Sure, it signaled a huge growth in government, but the premise seemed logical.

But here are three things you don’t know that apparently the Governor didn’t care about when he made his “Star Wars” campaign ad touting “800 New Child Protection Workers!!!”

1. There is a huge difference between having 800 new slots allocated statewide for case managers and actually HAVING 800 new case managers on the job. At the Marion County Department of Child Services, the job pressures so greatly outpace the financial rewards that to call the office a “revolving door” doesn't capture the fact many new hires jump through the glass mid-rotation.

2. The Marion County Department of Child Services has just increased its caseloads substantially. When a hospital, daycare, school, or good guy citizen calls CPS to report potential abuse or neglect, that call generates what is called a “310 report.” CPS then decides whether to investigate the allegation or to "screen it out.”

If someone, for example, reports, “My next door neighbor’s kid watches The Simpsons eight hours a day,” it might be suspect parenting, but it doesn’t mean Mr. State gets to kick down their door. These calls get screened out, along with questionable allegations made during child custody disputes.

For reasons that are unclear, until about a month ago, the Marion County DCS office screened out 40% of all 310 reports. Now, with the creation of a new 310 review team, that percent is down to 20% screened out, which is consistent with the state average for other counties.

What does this mean? A lot more CHINS (Child in Need of Services) cases and more kids taken from their parents. Right now, Marion County DCS is filing 50 new CHINS cases filed per week.

In some respects, this is expected. Supply creates its own demand, as new workers and entities seek to justify their own employment existence. Talk to any lawyer who practices at the juvenile court, and they will all tell you that as soon as a special “domestic violence” unit was created at Marion County DCS about six months ago, the number of domestic violence cases filed as CHINS actions increased noticeably.

Instinctively, you might say, “Hey, isn’t it good to investigate MORE?” Sure, but it has to make you curious about the initial premise justifying the expansion of government, doesn’t it? If we say we want to increase case managers to decrease average caseloads, but then we increase caseloads without adding (and more importantly, without actually KEEPING) more case managers, how do we hit our target?

This leads me to the third point.

3. When we added these new case managers, why didn’t the Governor also come up with additional money to pay for more court Magistrates, DCS attorneys and public defenders, DCS supervisors (somebody has to get promoted to train the newbies), additional court space, foster placement per diems and foster parent training?

The Governor is not stupid, so how could he have assumed that adding new case managers wouldn't have a ripple effect throughout the rest of the system. Wouldn't that be like doubling your police force while thinking you wouldn't need more courts, prosecutors, public defenders, and jail space?

If there is any benefit to the fact DCS has not actually reached 800 new case manager, it's found in the delay of enacting human nature. If you have somebody in a "policing" role, they ARE going to make more arrests, even if now you're enforcing smaller offenses. I promise you that if we quadruple IMPD's workforce, we'd all be getting tickets for driving 56 in a 55. Once DCS actually gets to its "fighting weight," I predict you will see more people coming in the system ever before, and they'll stay in it longer as well.

What makes increased caseloads terrifying from a taxpayer perspective is that each new case increases the already insane amounts we pay for the stuff we make parents do to get their kids back, including drug testing, drug and alcohol rehabilitation classes, parenting classes, anger management classes, domestic violence classes, individual and family counseling, home-based counseling, and supervised visitation. I promise you, ladies and gentlemen, unless we revolutionize how we do things in the Marion County child welfare system, these costs will ALL go through the roof.

That means the next time you want to complain about your property taxes, look at your child welfare budget, and thank the Governor for crushing your wallet.

Some things are worth it. Is this one of them?

Stay tuned for Part Deux (a/k/a “Who Will Save the Children?”)



Anonymous said...

First you are mixing your metaphors. Second what this tells you is Marion County was previously screening out cases they thought were abuse or now they are taking cases that are not abuse but need to justify their new found budget. My experience is Marion County files cases that other counties would laugh at you if you claimed that a CHINS should be filed. While my experience is they jump the gun in Marion County that some other counties overlook true abuse and neglect. Maybe they should, rotate case workers in to other areas.

Anonymous said...

When I was a deputy prosecutor doing a stint in the DV unit, CPS was worthless. Women would get the shit beat out of them time and again on the weekend and show up on Monday morning saying that they never said what the police put in the report and he never touched her. It got to the point that you knew several of the women on a first name basis. And of course, the women were getting beat right in front of the kids.

So we thought that since kids are in danger when adults fight and that the most common way men become batterers is to see it growing up, CPS would help us out and put some pressure on these women to clean up their act for the sake of their children. Ha!

I hope this new DV unit works. It could be a great unit, though given the track record, I doubt it.

Anonymous said...

I think part of the problem is that the MCDCS attorneys have no authority to actually advise their "client" on what is legal and what is not. IPOPA, I think if a client walked into your office wanting you to file a case that had no legal merit whatsoever, you would patiently explain to them that it would be a violation of your ethical obligations as an officer of the court to file such a claim, and politely show them the door. MCDCS attorneys have no such discretion. More often than not, their legal advice is ignored while case managers and supervisors do whatever they want to do, and then expect the attorneys to clean it up in court. Part of the solution has got to be giving the attorneys the ability to actually practice law, rather than turning them into robots to do Director Payne's bidding. (I agree with you that it wouldn't hurt to hire more attorneys too. Marion County has 25% (and most likely growing) of the CHINS cases in the state, why don't they have 25% of the legal team?)