A report from Department of Human Services to the federal government paints a grim picture, but the state plans to award extra pay to try to attract more workers.

The vacancy rate for caseworkers in the state Child Welfare Services branch reached an alarming 40% earlier this year, which was almost twice as high as the rate just a year earlier, according to a report on CWS filed with the federal government.

The 2024 Annual Progress and Services Report prepared by the state Department of Human Services found CWS had an overall staff vacancy rate of 32% in February. But the critically important and sometimes brutally stressful caseworker positions have proved to be particularly difficult to fill.

The same report to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services noted the average caseworker caseload statewide was 39 as of March 1, which was a 50% increase over a year earlier.

“Average caseloads were especially high on Maui and both sides of Hawaii Island, due to high caseworker vacancy rates,” according to the report. The report notes “there is no policy” that limits the number of cases a single caseworker can carry.

CWS is tasked with investigating cases of suspected child abuse and neglect, and also with intervening to protect children and provide services to families when risks to the children are confirmed.

Data compiled for the Hawaii report show CWS accepted 2,921 reports of abuse or neglect for investigation in the year that ended June 30, 2022, and confirmed 788 of those reports.

The system had 177 authorized caseworker positions as of March 1 to cope with that workload, but 70 of those positions were vacant.

Dept of Human Services .
The vacancy rate for caseworkers in Hawaii’s Child Welfare Services branch is 40%, much higher than a year ago, according to a recent state report. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Recruiting new workers for CWS has been a problem for years, with staff privately recounting examples of social workers who quit the agency to take less stressful positions in health care or other fields.

Meanwhile, people who regularly deal with CWS describe a system where the level of service and responsiveness of the agency has suffered as staffing levels declined.

Joe O’Connell, a longtime Hilo foster parent, said a teenager placed with his family earlier this month arrived without even basic paperwork to let O’Connell know about his history or medical needs.

Foster children normally arrive with packets that include some basic information about them, but “we didn’t get anything,” O’Connell said. “Even his birthdate was left blank on the form.”

The youth was being moved from another foster home, but he arrived at O’Connell’s house with just the clothes he was wearing. He also arrived without his medications, and O’Connell said he did not learn the youth was supposed to be on six different meds until days later.

The boy’s clothes were delivered in garbage bags days after he arrived, and CWS also neglected to tell O’Connell the youth had spent time at Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility on Oahu for an alleged assault.

Longtime Hilo foster parent Joe O’Connell said the strains on staff at Child Welfare Services are showing. As of March 1, 40% of caseworker positions were vacant. (Kevin Dayton/Civil Beat/2023)

“We would have taken him either way, but it would have been nice to know at the onset,” O’Connell said. “After doing this for nine years, this is highly unusual, that type of lack of information.”

When O’Connell asked why it took so long to get the meds, clothes and basic facts about the boy, he was told the CWS workers were short handed and in a rush to move on to other tasks.

“They’ve always been short staffed, but not to the point of neglecting some big, important information like vital medicines and vital information,” O’Connell said.

Short staffing at CWS surfaced as a high-profile issue at the Legislature in 2022 following the disappearance of Isabella Kalua, also known as Ariel Sellers, who was never found. She was later declared dead.

Lawmakers approved a package of proposals that year to issue contracts for services to support CWS and to boost pay for social workers in the system, but then-Gov. David Ige vetoed the measure because of flaws in the bill.

Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Joy San Buenaventura noted that CWS positions had a 20% vacancy rate even before the pandemic. The 2024 APSR report said the current 32% rate is “the highest vacancy rate in over a decade.”

To try to address that problem, lawmakers again earmarked money this year for a “differential” to boost pay for CWS caseworkers to try to reduce the vacancy rate, San Buenaventura said.

“That was the whole idea of a doing the pay differentials, was to try to attract more social workers,” she said.

But Department of Human Services has not yet rolled out the pay differentials.

Daisy Hartsfield, administrator of the DHS Social Services Division, said in a written statement the money for differentials “was greatly appreciated and needed. Unfortunately, the process to distribute the shortage differential has not been a quick or easy one.”

Rep Joy San Buenaventura cesspool info forum.
Sen. Joy San Buenaventura, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, has supported proposals for a pay differential for Child Welfare Services staff to help fill the vacancies in the agency. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat)

“A proposal on how to distribute the differential was completed but there needs to be continued discussions between the Department of Human Resources Development (DHRD) and the Department of Human Services because factors such as capacity needs of each CWS office, years of services, etc. need to be considered,” Hartsfield wrote.

“CWS staff was provided an update about this, and it was made clear that the intent of this shortage differential is to address capacity issues and to assist with recruitment and retainment of workers to build the CWS workforce. This is not a differential related to individual performance.”

“The Department hopes that when the final decision is made about how to distribute the shortage differential, that all CWS social workers will be able to receive it,” she wrote.

“If this shortage differential is successful in meeting its intent, the Department will consider asking for additional funding in the future for a shortage differential for non-social worker positions that also play a pivotal role in providing services to keep children safe in their family homes,” Hartsfield wrote.

In the meantime, the department launched the federally funded Family First Program in the fall of 2021 to provide prevention services to at-risk families in the home, rather than removing children and placing them in foster care.

Data in the APSR report shows 200 children from 139 families received Family First services from the start of the program until the end of last year. Of that group, 48 children from 37 families
entered foster care, while the rest “were safely kept out of foster care, thus preserving the family unit,” according to the report.

The state contracts with various private non-profit organizations for services that are used to monitor and help at-risk families as well as support the CWS social workers, but the APSR report noted that “there is a statewide shortage of both public and private social services employees.”

“For example, for nine months, at least two DHS contracted service providers have been unable to provide their services, because they have been unable to fill essential staff positions,” according to the report.

“We really need to look into it to see if any of this has any effect at all on the abuse, because that’s what we really want to end,” San Buenaventura said.

The data in the APSR report shows that of the 788 confirmed reports of abuse or neglect in fiscal year 2021, 71% involved “threatened harm,” while the department concluded there was actual physical neglect in 13.8% of the cases.

Another 6.8% of the cases involved confirmed physical abuse, and there was confirmed sexual abuse in 6.3% of the cases, according to CWS.

Four children involved in active CWS cases died of maltreatment that year, according to the CWS data.

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation, Atherton Family Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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