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Postby Marina » Sun Jul 27, 2008 3:42 pm

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Social worker turnover can lead to delays for foster parents

BY CLARENCE MABIN / Lincoln Journal Star
Sunday, Jul 27, 2008 - 12:06:39 am CDT

At first, adopting the little boy and his two younger sisters seemed like it would be easy.

Removed by police from a filthy, mice- and cockroach-infested Lincoln home in July 2005, the children, then 4, 2 and 11 months, were placed with foster parents Jeff and Lisa Elrod a few weeks later.

Christopher, Destiny and Cecilia seemed like an answer to the couple’s prayers.

View SlideshowJeff and Lisa Elrod have adopted four children:(clockwise from left) Blake, 6, Aubree, 3, Weston, 5, and Isabella, 5. "We're making a difference in the lives of these kids, and that is what we have to remember through this process," Lisa said when discussing the hard times they encountered with the court system. (Heidi Hoffman)

And, Jeff Elrod recalled, the first Health and Human Services caseworker assigned to the case said the road should be smooth.

“He said it was a good case, an easy one, for adoption (because) of what he saw with the biological parents,” Jeff Elrod said.

What followed, the couple said, was nearly three years of delays and frustration, owing in large part, they said, to the succession of caseworkers — five in all — assigned to the case.

“It was like starting at square one each time,” Jeff Elrod said. “Each one wanted to reinvent the wheel.”

According to many involved in the juvenile justice system, their experience is not unique.

Lancaster County Juvenile Court Judge Roger Heideman said caseworker turnover often has a dramatic effect on how quickly abuse and neglect cases move through the system.

“The biggest (issue) I’ve seen is the impact of the constant changing of caseworkers,” said Heideman, a former Lincoln attorney appointed to the bench in 2006 by Gov. Dave Heineman. “A caseworker starts to establish a relationship with a family, and then they either quit or get reassigned and things start over again.”

Said Alicia Henderson, chief deputy attorney in the juvenile division of the Lancaster County Attorney’s Office: “Any time there’s a change in caseworkers, the case kind of stalls. You (the new caseworker) don’t know the family, don’t know the kids.”

Adoption day for the Elrods finally came about six weeks ago.

The children received the Elrod surname at the May 27 Juvenile Court hearing, as well as new first names: Christopher became Blake, Destiny became Isabella, Cecilia became Aubree. The couple have another adopted son, Weston, 5, whom they adopted in Scotts Bluff County.

“We don’t want to sound bitter, but this was a long, difficult battle,” Lisa Elrod said.

Of the three most common categories of cases in Nebraska’s juvenile courts — abuse and neglect, law violations and ungovernable or truancy — abuse and neglect are the toughest to resolve, and the most time-consuming.

They often involve allegations by a county attorney office that parents or guardians have not provided for the well-being of their children. Adult drug abuse is often at the heart of these cases, but mental health issues and physical or sexual violence can play a role, too.

Many times, the state removes children from their homes while cases are pending, and while professionals — from judges and attorneys, to social workers and drug and mental health therapists — wrestle with knotty questions.

* Is it in the best interests of the children to be reunited with the parents? Or should the state move toward terminating parental rights and adoption?

* Where is the balance between children’s interests and biological parents’ right — grounded in the U.S. Constitution — to retain custody and control of their children?

* If the goal is reunification, what is the most effective plan for reaching that end?

* And once a plan is finally approved by the court, have custodial parents shown real progress toward meeting their obligations? How likely are they to succeed?

Carol Stitt, executive director of the Nebraska Foster Care Review Board, said front-line caseworkers play a crucial role in answering many of these questions.

“It’s all about relationships and having knowledge of cases,” she said. “Often, they (new caseworkers) don’t know what’s been tried before, what’s not worked.”

In terms of pressing issues, Stitt’s agency has identified caseworker turnover as second only to matching state wards with appropriate services.

According to the review board, as of June 8, 116 of 351, or 33 percent, of children birth to 5 and in foster care in Lancaster County had four or more caseworkers in their lifetime.

A similar study of 948 children in that age range in 2006 indicated 36 percent had at least four caseworkers.

Stitt called the numbers staggering.

“The more caseworkers you have on a case, the longer children are going to be outside the home,” she said. “You have to remember what that can do to the children.”

Children can form strong bonds with foster parents, professionals say. And that can have consequences, said Dawn Rockey, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Lancaster County.

“For children in and out of various foster homes, each change has an almost grieving effect on a child,” Rockey said. “It diminishes their ability to trust.”

The Elrod case began when Lincoln Police Officer Brock Wagner knocked on the door of a home near Seventh and South streets at about 11:45 p.m. on July 30, 2005, to investigate a child neglect complaint.

According to his affidavit in support of a state petition to take temporary custody of the children, a 20-year-old woman answered and let Wagner inside.

Trash, dog feces and decaying food were strewn across the floors, along with clothes and toys, Wagner said in the affidavit. Three young children, wearing dirty clothes and with dirty, food-stained faces, played on the living room floor while cockroaches scurried around them.

As he interviewed the mother, Wagner said, he saw mice dart along the floor near the living room couch. The woman told him the house was dirty because her boyfriend had just moved out. The officer later found a marijuana plant growing in a flower pot near the washer in the basement.

Authorities put the children in emergency protective custody, and HHS placed them with the Elrods that September.

“We had been praying and felt led to adopt a strip,” Jeff Elrod said, using the foster-adoption system vernacular for siblings. “This was the Lord answering our prayers.”

The first caseworker expressed confidence in the Elrods’ ability to adopt the children, they said, but by May 2006 he took another job.

Caseworker No. 2, the couple said, was ineffective at moving the case along, and, after nearly a year, transferred to a new position.

A third caseworker, whom the Elrods did not meet, was assigned to the children between March and April 2007.

Her replacement was a young woman who appeared to be in her 20s, the couple said.

“She was a brand new worker and given a complicated case,” Lisa Elrod said. “We felt that was not wise.”

The fourth caseworker left the case — either voluntarily or by dismissal, the Elrods said — and by the end of August 2007, a new one was assigned.

According to the couple, the final caseworker was determined to reunite the children with their biological parents, even though the case had, by now, taken a direction toward adoption.

“She was hell-bent on reunification,” Lisa Elrod said, “even though the kids had not seen their fathers for months, and one of the dads tested positive for drugs.”

The three children have the same mother, and two fathers.

Lisa Elrod said the biological parents had been inconsistent, at best, at making progress toward reuniting with the children.

“The state pampers these parents too much,” said Jeff Elrod. “Every time they make one little stride forward, it puts everything on hold.”

Said his wife: “The adoptions happened solely because the (biological) parents failed to come through.”

Stitt said she understood the Elrods’ frustration.

“I would agree we sometimes go past what we need to (in protecting biological) parents’ rights,” she said. “We have to be able to identify sooner (the parents) we’re not going to be able to rehabilitate.”

Here, too, turnover plays a role, she said.

“You can’t terminate parental rights without evidence. When you have caseworker change all the time, it’s very hard to know if the parents are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

But Lincoln attorney Susan Kirchmann, who has represented biological families in abuse and neglect cases, said courts sometimes move too quickly toward termination.

“I tend to see it that way,” she said. “You have parents who can say, ‘We’re almost there.’”

Any of a number of dynamics could be fueling the turnover of caseworkers, she said.

One, she said, is age and life experience of the workers.

“Many of them are in their mid- to late 20s, some even in their early 20s,” she said. “Often, they don’t have kids of their own, so the parents don’t take them seriously.”

The result can be low morale.

Job expectations also can play a role.

“(They) think they’re going to be working with children. Instead, they’re usually dealing with the parents.”

Although a change in caseworkers can be disruptive, it can have the opposite effect, Kirchmann said.

“Sometimes, it’s good to get a new perspective. Sometimes, we get bogged down in the details and lose sight of the big picture.”

Cheryl Johnson, a former HHS caseworker who now works for the Foster Care Review Board, said the stress on caseworkers can be overwhelming.

Johnson, who quit in 2007, said a caseworker might be responsible for as many as 25 abuse and neglect cases at a time. That number would jump, she said, when someone quit or transferred, and his or her cases were doled out.

“For each case, you could be working with the (biological and foster) parents, the kids, neighbors, school counselors,” she said.

“There could be 15 people, multiplied by 25, and you are the responsible party. It’s a very stressful job.”

And then there are the hearings. Court proceedings can be unnerving for caseworkers who might be at the receiving end of tough questioning from the judge or from attorneys for custodial parents and for children.

For a caseworker unprepared for the adversarial culture of courtrooms, Johnson said, the hearings can be intimidating.

Added Stitt: “We don’t do a very good job preparing caseworkers on how to testify. It’s really two distinct cultures. With caseworkers, it’s intuitive. With (judges and lawyers) it’s all about the facts.”

Todd Landry, director of Children and Family Services at HHS, said the agency has taken steps toward reducing turnover.

As part of an initiative by Gov. Heineman to establish permanent placements sooner for 1,600 targeted state wards — some of whom were selected because of their length of time in the system — HHS child welfare staff began holding monthly meetings in 2006 to ensure cases were moving as quickly as possible, Landry said.

As a result, he said, the average number of cases assigned to caseworkers declined.

The 2007 number, he said, was 94 percent of the optimal number recommended by the Child Welfare League of America. In 2006, it was 116 percent, Landry said.

He said the drop had a direct effect, reducing the rate of caseworker turnover from about 40 percent in 2006 to about 28 percent the next year.

The agency also has worked to divert potential abuse and neglect cases away from the courts and into voluntary assistance programs for families, he said.

Still, more must be done, he said. “While progress has been made, it’s (the turnover) certainly more than we want.”

Some workers leave to return to school, he said, and promotions or transfers to other departments within HHS account for some of the turnover.

And, he said, other circumstances besides caseworker change can contribute to delays that sometimes vex abuse and neglect cases.

True, a caseworker’s departure can cause a juvenile court case to stall, but so can the departure of others involved, he said.

“When (a caseworker) leaves, it can slow down the progress of a case, just as it does when a county attorney leaves or a guardian ad litem,” Landry said.

And biological parents’ legal rights can’t be overlooked, he said.

“We do have a legal obligation to (try to) reunify a family,” he said. “We take that very seriously.

“… There are multiple pieces to this. A significant amount of checks and balances. It is a complicated system. It is designed that way.”

Stitt said she and Landry are essentially on the same page, and she applauded recent improvements in adoption rates and decreases in the numbers of children in foster care.

Still, the Review Board has recommended:

* Caseworker pay be increased. Caseworker trainees make $27,327 a year. After the six-month training period, new hires start at $31,579.

* Establishment of support services for caseworkers, who, according to the Review Board’s annual report, often feel alone on the job.

* The state consider adopting limits on the number of cases assigned to each caseworker. She said Illinois and Delaware already have implemented the strategy.

“The primary concern, first of all, is workers are stretched very thin,” she said. “I would focus on what that does to the children.”


Posts: 5496
Joined: Sat Feb 25, 2006 3:06 pm

Postby Marina » Fri Nov 28, 2008 9:06 pm ... a&psp=news

Foster Care Facility Under Investigation Wants Answers
Facility Owner's Attorney Denies Wrongdoing

POSTED: 11:48 am CST November 20, 2008
UPDATED: 12:08 pm CST November 20, 2008

OMAHA, Neb. -- A troubled foster care agency that has been virtually shut down since an FBI raid in May is looking for answers from the state.

The Nebraska State Patrol and the FBI raided Sigma Treatment Foster Care to investigate allegations of embezzlement, overbilling and fraudulent billing.

The investigation began in March after the Department of Health and Human Services forwarded a tip to investigators.

At the time, a state patrol lieutenant said law enforcement recovered a lot of documents and the investigation could take a long time. But since the raid, no charges have been filed and owner Donna Adams said she has not heard anything from the state.

Her attorney, Timothy Ashford, said she has successfully completed cases since the raid, suggesting the state trusts her with foster children. Ashford said she has not received any new clients since the raid.

"The state has to answer for that," Ashford said. He denied any wrongdoing by his client.

In May, DHHS's Todd Landry said the well-being of children at the facility was never an issue, but "We have a responsibility to taxpayers to ensure the proper use of state dollars."

Adams, 40, ran a failed bid for the District 13 Legislative seat in the spring.

Calls to the state patrol were not returned.

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