Indiana has hired more case workers to keep track of its most vulnerable residents, but complaints about overwork continue to surface as the state battles turnover and questions the accuracy of data on caseloads.
The Department of Child Services has added about 100 caseworkers and plans to hire 10 more by the end of the year, director Mary Beth Bonaventura says. But a 17-percent turnover rate keeps the staffing rate in flux, and the absence of a mechanism to track caseload ratios makes it difficult to determine exactly what the workers' caseload is.
The issue of caseloads is expected to come up with state lawmakers. Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend, a member of the Child Services Oversight Committee and a former DCS attorney, said he believes the committee will ask the agency how it arrives at caseload figures and try to determine what assurances the data DCS provides are "apples to apples."
Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, chairman of the oversight committee, told the South Bend Tribune that he has asked DCS for a list of all children currently in the system, not merely caseload statistics.
"I think that's something my committee needs to look into," Yoder said. "I think there needs to be more transparency there."
An Indiana law passed in 2007 requires case managers whose jobs are primarily to assess new reports to carry no more than 12 such cases at a time, since those cases are more intensive. Family case managers who follow established cases are limited to no more than 17 cases.
But it's hard to get an accurate caseload tally because of the way DCS accounts for those in its care.
Since 2011, children placed in residential facilities are weighted as only half a case. The belief is that staff at the facilities are overseeing those children and the regular case manager has less involvement.
"There are concerns that the numbers used to calculate need do not always accurately reflect the situation," a 2013 report by an ombudsman tasked with making recommendations to improve DCS. "It is also recommended that the numbers used to reflect caseload size only reflect actual caseloads."
Ombudsman Alfreda Singleton-Smith said part of the report was written by former ombudsman Susan Hoppe. Singleton-Smith took over for Hoppe in June 2013.
Singleton-Smith said keeping an accurate tally is "a moving target all the time."
"Like with the stats we keep in our office, it's not as simple as counting because they don't all come in the same day at the first of the month and they don't all end on the same day of the month."
Yoder acknowledged hiring new caseworkers is difficult, given their relatively low starting wages and the pressures of the job.
"It's a pretty painful profession," he said. "We don't reward these workers who are willing to put their lives on the line for these kids."
He said he hopes to get more funding for DCS next year when lawmakers craft a new budget but noted that competition for dollars will be stiff.
Meanwhile, Bonaventura said the agency is trying harder to support its workers in the field.
"Even if you're not overloaded, the substance of those cases, I guarantee you, is harder than anything anyone can imagine," she said. "So even if you have 12 and 17, that's not the cure."