Agency blames caseworker turnover on pay, scrutiny

Indiana's Department of Child Services on Wednesday blamed a combination of low pay and job stress stemming from media coverage of the agency for an increasing turnover rate among child caseworkers.

DCS Chief of Staff John Ryan accused Indiana media outlets of singling out caseworkers for criticism, though he didn't provide examples. Scrutiny of the department has grown in the last year as newspaper investigations have detailed numerous child deaths.

"It's perfectly OK to criticize the department," Ryan told members of the State Budget Committee. "When you start to criticize family case managers individually, that gets to them."

Turnover among caseworkers increased from 17 percent last year to 19 percent, according to the department's annual report submitted Wednesday to the committee, which includes lawmakers and officials from the governor's administration.

The annual report makes the same statement that media coverage of the department hurt morale, but makes no mention of individual caseworkers being targeted.

The South Bend Tribune was among the newspapers reporting on the agency. DCS in March lost its court fight against the newspaper to keep details of a May 2011 call to the state's child abuse hotline secret. The call detailed abuse in a South Bend home where 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis was beaten to death last November.

DCS spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland pointed to a story about Sturgis' death as an example of the media targeting individual caseworkers. However, the Tribune story did not include the name of that caseworker.

Ryan told the panel that along with media coverage, low pay was cited in anonymous employee surveys as a top reason they were leaving the agency. Starting pay for caseworkers, he said, is at about $33,500.

"How much more than that would make a noticeable difference in retention?" asked Budget Committee Chairman Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale.

Ryan said a 10-percent increase would help. He estimated his agency spends about $60 million annually on caseworker salaries.

Ryan's arguments on Wednesday mirror similar criticism that Gov. Mitch Daniels made at a meeting of DCS employees, where he accused the media of distorting the agency's troubles.

DCS has suffered through state budget cuts like most other state agencies in the last few years. The department was cut by $100 million in the 2011 budget, and cut by $16 million in the 2012 budget.

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