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Earlier this week, Gregory McKay, the director of Arizona’s Department of Child Safety, came to AEI to talk about his efforts to improve the state’s child welfare system. The numbers were stark when he took over. Child fatalities were up. Investigators were faced with absurdly large caseloads. People calling into an emergency hotline to report child abuse or neglect were placed on hold for an average of 14 minutes. There were a lot of things that McKay, a former homicide detective, did to change this situation — and I encourage you to watch the video to find out more — but one thing that stuck out for me was the idea of “rebranding” child protective services.
The reasons to do this are clear. Regardless of whether you think too many kids are being taken away from their parents or too few, child protective service investigators have an important job and we are not getting the best and the brightest to go into this profession. The turnover rates are extraordinary. A report from Casey Family Programs finds that the estimated national average turnover rate at child welfare agencies is approximately 30 percent, with individual agency rates as high as 65 percent. John Mattingly, a former commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services in New York City who was also at the event, describes having employees quit on their first day of work. So unprepared for what the job actually involves and then undertrained for how to do it, it’s hardly surprising that this is the result.
These kind of occurrences are bad for any workplace but for these “first responders,” as McKay rightly refers to child protective services, they are a disaster. Indeed, imagine if we saw this kind of turnover rate with police officers or EMTs. The most common answer one hears to this problem is to pay CPS workers more. One tweet in response to the announcement or our event read: “This doesn’t require an expert panel. Pay your front line staff a competitive rate so they don’t leave for a supervisory role 6 months later. Require an actual social work degree. It’s not rocket science.”
Certainly compensation for these workers could be improved. And a career ladder would help too. But public relations matters. Who wants to go work for an agency whose employees are viewed by the public as either evil or incompetent or both?
With a new video Arizona began the process of explaining to the public exactly who these employees are. Some of the people in the video are actually former foster youth themselves. The video gives potential employees a good idea of what their job is and the name “secret superhero” suggests that the department is trying to get them more respect.
According to McKay, the efforts seem to be working. Caseloads are down to a manageable level from 160 per person to between 12 and 15. More than a hundred new positions were added. Wait times for the hotline are less than a minute and turnover has fallen as well.
But perhaps the most interesting sign that they are attracting more qualified people and holding on to them is the number of people who are wearing the department’s new swag. Yes, that’s right. No longer are people embarrassed to tell their friends and family that they work for child protective services. They will actually don hats and T-shirts proclaiming it. Just like police, fire and EMTs, CPS workers have begun to take pride in their jobs. That means not just that qualified people will go into CPS but also that the public will be more willing to call CPS if they are worried about cases of abuse. T-shirts may not be the answer but they are a symbol that something is getting better.
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