As Kansas rolls out changes to its child welfare system, a decision to loosen requirements for child protection specialists has some child advocates concerned that the state is trading a quantity problem for a quality problem.
The state says it created the new staff classification – unlicensed child protection specialist – in an effort to recruit more child protection specialists, noting that last month there were almost 80 open positions in the state. Applicants aren’t required to be licensed social workers, but must have a bachelor’s degree in a related field.
Licensed and unlicensed child protection specialists have the same position description and will carry caseloads and work under licensed supervisors, according to Taylor Forrest, spokesperson for Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF). Starting pay for unlicensed child protection specialists is $40,000, while it’s only $38,000 for the unlicensed position.
“The decision to create a classification of unlicensed child protection specialists was not made lightly,” Forrest said in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change. “DCF regions had communicated that they were experiencing staff shortages and high caseloads. This was not a new issue, as some positions had been vacant for more than 500 days.
Forrest said the agency had “expanded our recruitment efforts, with little to no success. In reviewing the number of graduates from the universities with social work programs, it was quite obvious that there are not enough graduates to meet the staffing needs.”
Kansas National Association of Social Workers President Timothy Davis said he understands the difficult position the state is in trying to fill positions that have been open for a lengthy amount of time, but he also feels that this isn’t the answer to solving the problem.
“We need to make sure we’re hiring well-qualified, well-experienced professionals into these positions,” Davis said. “A better approach is to say: ‘How can we attract more people to child welfare? How do we make these positions more attractive?’”
“Kansas historically has been a leader in making sure their workers are more ahead of the game than other states,” said Steve Roling, former head of Missouri‘s Department of Social Services in an Associated Press article earlier this month. “In my opinion, it would be a shame to go back on that.”
Before making the move, Forrest said a consultant for DCF evaluated what other states’ requirements are for child welfare specialists, noting that Kansas was only one of 10 states requiring a social work degree and license for such positions.
The state’s neighbor to the north, Nebraska, has employed a standard similar to the new Kansas policy for at least a decade, according to Lori Harder, deputy director of protection and safety for Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Nebraska’s requirements include bachelor’s degrees in social work, psychology, sociology, counseling, human development, mental health care, education, criminal justice or other closely related area.
With only 14 positions currently open in the state, recruitment is significantly less of an issue for Nebraska at this time than Kansas.
To the south, Texas has one of the lowest requirement rates with just 60 hours toward a degree and two years of related work with kids required for application. There was an attempt to pass legislation earlier this year that would have required at least a four-year degree for caseworkers, but it failed.
“It’s simple,” said Will Francis, government relations director for the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, which supported the bill. “We want to make sure we’re responding to families in crisis with the best resources. You get better outcomes when you bring social work skills to the table.”
While the legislation failed to pass, Francis said the Texas Chapter of NASW has plans to bring the issue to the legislature again next year.
In Kansas, changing the child protection specialist requirement seems to be helping to achieve the state’s goals of filling vacant positions so far.
Prior to the implementation of the new requirements, the protection specialist vacancy rate was 20.7 percent. As of June 28, it had already dropped to 16.9 percent.
“DCF welcomes and values the feedback surrounding this decision, but quite simply, with the rising number of children entering foster care, and the number of vacant positions, Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel believed it was vital to modernize Kansas’s approach to who can conduct child welfare investigations,” Forrest said.