Tim Steller: Turnover rampant in CPS jobs, keeping agency in crisis

2013-05-03T00:00:00Z 2013-05-03T12:39:05Z Tim Steller: Turnover rampant in CPS jobs, keeping agency in crisisTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 03, 2013 12:00 am  • 

It's not the recruitment video you'd expect. One by one, workers hit you with the tough reality of working for Child Protective Services.

"When we knock on a door, we're rarely welcome, and we face hostility much of the time," says Laurie White, a CPS program manager in Flagstaff, in a 25-minute video on the website where CPS posts its job openings.

"Many people don't understand it's not an 8-to-5 job. It never will be, because you cannot, first of all, fit all the work in an eight-hour day, and there are always circumstances that will keep you out in the field later hours or come in early, sometimes on weekends," warns Ursula Garza, from the CPS Casa Grande office.

"On any given day, a CPS case manager may visit a filthy, insect-infested home to see children who haven't been cared for in days. Or pick up a child at the hospital with cuts, bruises, broken bones or worse - injuries that can't be explained as accidental," says CPS employee Monica Snyder.

The video, titled "It's Not Just a Job: A Realistic Preview of a Career in Child Protective Services," appears aimed at reducing turnover by hiring people who know what they're getting into. Last year the turnover rate among nonsupervisor positions was 29 percent.

It's alongside postings where an entry-level job pays $33,312 a year.

Adding good employees who stay is crucial to ending the years-long crisis at CPS, which is perpetually understaffed, often by the hundreds of employees. That's a key reason the Legislature needs to pass Gov. Jan Brewer's budget request of $77.6 million for the agency.

It would fund 200 more workers, which can help ensure that CPS responds adequately to reports of abuse or neglect. It would also give the agency a better chance of preventing child abuse through interventions with troubled families.

"Caseworkers who work at CPS have far more cases than they can handle at a time," said Dana Naimark, president of the Children's Action Alliance. "They're not seeing the kids; they're not responding to foster parents. They simply can't."

The alliance pointed out that of 20,597 cases opened by CPS between July 1 and Dec. 31 of last year, almost half remained open in early March.

"That means there are kids in danger," Naimark said.

The danger has led to tragedy for some kids who were the subjects of complaints to CPS but ended up dead at the hands of their parents or guardians. Za'Naya Flores, a 21-month-old Tucson girl, died of starvation in January 2012 despite being under CPS supervision.

The reasons for high turnover in CPS are well-known, disclosed in that video and common nationwide.

"The work is demanding. Workers aren't expecting it to be so complex and demanding. Workers aren't well-supported by supervisors or the agency. They're held accountable and never supported to do good work," Nancy Dickinson, director of the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute, told me Thursday.

That's typical nationwide, but Arizona's problems have been more severe and have persisted even after significant reforms, set in motion by the governor in 2011, in how CPS does its work. The agency reduced paperwork requirements to give caseworkers more time to work with families. It also added a new job classification for higher-level line workers, allowing them a path to promotion in the agency.

Nevertheless the downward spiral has continued in CPS - workers leaving, consequently giving the remaining workers a higher caseload, at least temporarily, and making them want to leave.

I talked with a CPS retiree about her time at the agency, and her story made clear that though it's grown worse, working at CPS has never been easy.

"It was nonstop," said Carmen Belloso, who retired as a CPS investigator in 2004 and now works at Child and Family Resources in Tucson. "It was easy to carry a caseload of 100."

"That's the reason there's always turnover. Because it's stressful," Belloso said.

All that, and the starting pay for those with a master's degree in social work is just $35,730, or about $17 per hour.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter @senyorreporter

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