'Typical' day in Division of Child and Family Services? There isn't one, caseworkers tell state lawmakers

Published: Sunday, June 29 2014 3:30 p.m. MDT

Updated: Sunday, June 29 2014 3:30 p.m. MDT

Any given day, caseworkers in the Utah Division of Child and Family Services might teach a family the skills that keep it together or go to a home to investigate allegations of abuse. There's no 'typical' day, caseworkers told lawmakers Tuesday.

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WEST VALLEY CITY — It's doubtful that Anna Whisler's university training in social work included a class on housekeeping.

But as a caseworker with the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, Whisler told state lawmakers recently that she sometimes takes cleaning supplies to the homes of families to teach them how to keep their homes clean and safe after the division has received reports of child neglect.

"If they lack those skills, it's my job to teach them," Whisler said.

Her goal is to preserve families and teach them skills that hopefully result in the division completing its supervision of their families, she said.

Whisler was among a panel of DCFS caseworkers who addressed the Utah Legislature's Child Welfare Legislative Oversight Panel during a recent meeting at the division's offices in West Valley City.

Caseworkers gave lawmakers a glimpse into their "typical days," something child protective services caseworker Lauren Judd says doesn't exist.

"There just isn’t one. The days are never typical in child protective services," Judd said.

Oftentimes a single caseworker will visit a home to investigate allegations of abuse or neglect. Sometimes they are accompanied by another caseworker or law enforcement if a warrant is being served to remove a child or children from a home.

Often they're on their own, said DCFS director Brent Platt.

"Caseworkers go out with their smartphones, paper, pencil, and that's about it," Platt said.

The best-case scenario, Judd said, is that a family encountering difficulties voluntarily agrees to work with caseworkers.

"I do believe we treat families with compassion. We let them know we're not there to criticize or judge them," she said.

The job is stressful, and caseworkers start at an entry-level wage of $14.81 an hour plus benefits, which can include tuition reimbursements for caseworkers who seek master's degrees.

Still, job turnover ranges from 15 percent to 25 percent, according to statistics provided by the division. Turnover is higher in the Vernal and Roosevelt areas, Platt said, because the division cannot compete with salaries offered in the energy industries.

He told legislators that the division requires caseworkers to undergo 120 hours of classroom training, including 80 hours on Utah's child welfare practice model, to help new employees succeed on the job.

“They don’t get a caseload until they complete their training," Platt said.

Supervisors act as sounding boards, mentors and reviewers to further assist caseworkers. If the division receives complaints or inquiries about a caseworker, their performance is subject to evaluation by the Office of Services Review, which is part of Utah Department of Human Services but operates independently from DCFS.

Otherwise, the probationary period for new caseworkers is 12 months, and their handling of cases is subject to numerous layers of quality review, Platt said.

"If they’re overwhelmed, we want them to look elsewhere for work," he said.

While some aspects of the job are heart-wrenching, there are many gratifying aspect to being a caseworker, said Warren Malupo, who works with youths aging out of the foster care system in DCFS's Salt Lake region.

For instance, Malupo is working with a young man who has been in DCFS care for nine years. Recently, the young man and his birth mother got back in touch, and it appears she has overcome the issues that got the division involved in her family's life a decade ago.

The young man wants to use a law passed by lawmakers in 2013 to petition a court for restoration of her parental rights.

Malupo said the division is attempting to determine whether the mother is "as she is presenting herself to be."

If so, Malupo said he hopes to be part of a happy reunion.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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