The head of the state’s child welfare agency said Thursday he will slash the backlog of inactive cases by cutting down the number investigated on the front end.
Greg McKay said workers staffing the agency’s Hotline are making decisions on what should be pursued based on very subjective standards. The problem with that, he said, is it can result in staffers erring on the side of concluding an investigation is necessary based on “fear of the ‘what if’ factor, which, unfortunately, our staff experience.”
McKay, director of the Department of Child Safety, said that’s not only fear of making a wrong call and a child ending up injured but even the case winding up in the newspaper.
The change is part of a multi-point plan the director said should help deal with the backlog that has resulted in 14,635 cases listed as “inactive.” These are open cases where no social worker or staffer has looked at the file — or looked in on the child — in at least 60 days.
McKay said one problem he identified since taking over in February is that caseworkers must do the same reports for serious cases as for those that are minor. He wants to change the rules to make that more flexible.
Potentially more sweeping, he wants the ability to farm out certain minor complaints to outside private agencies. But McKay said that may require a change in state law which now mandates that DCS investigate each and every complaint that comes in.
McKay said he does not think the changes he wants will result in more complaints of abuse and neglect slipping through the cracks until, eventually, a child winds up seriously injured or dead.
“Now, will bad things still happen? Naturally,” he said.
“You can’t possibly prevent that from happening,” McKay continued. “But making sure that we’re reacting appropriately to where we are needed by the use of some more evidence-based tools is a good thing.”
It starts, he said, at the front end.
He said there were 52,000 calls to the Hotline in a year, more than 140 a day on average.
“If 52,000 is the amount of reports that this department must respond to and investigate, then we must do that well and expediently,” McKay said.
But McKay said he believes many of those calls that now result in investigations really don’t require that level of action. So he is instituting what he called more “objective decision making,” essentially a checklist that Hotline staffers will use to determine whether to forward a complaint or not for further action.
The changes to the input are part of a multi-point plan that McKay said should deal with the backlog.
Right now, McKay said, there are 14,635 cases listed as “inactive.” These are open cases where no social worker or staffer has looked at the file in at least 60 days.
“That system is clogged,” he said. “That’s not good for children, that’s not good for families.”
Screening out calls up front, he said, will help.
McKay conceded, though, that complaints to the Hotline can’t all be classified by using a simple yes-or-no checklist.
“There’s a certain subjectivity in this work that we’ll never be able to avoid,” he said.
“We’re dealing with people,” McKay continued. “And people are absolutely unpredictable, especially those who might be suffering from behavioral health (problems) or drug and alcohol or domestic violence or other trauma-related issues.”
But he said the staff will get “a set of guiding principles and tools so they make sure that they react objectively, as best as they can.” McKay said that will be backed up through review of calls, “making sure everybody is assessing things the same way all the time so that someone’s personal fears are not invading the work.”
The end result, he said, will be that staffers are handling fewer cases which, in turn, should give them more time on the ones that are left.
“We can’t do all things all the time and do them well,” he said.