Study: Idaho's Child Welfare System Overwhelmed, Overworked

Feb 8, 2017

Credit roberto volterra / Flickr

State auditors say Idaho's child welfare system is overwhelmed, with too few foster parents, too heavy caseloads for social workers and not enough infrastructure to hold it all together.

The study from the Legislature's Office of Performance Evaluations found that the number of foster parents has decreased by 8 percent since 2014, while social workers are dealing with 28 to 38 percent more cases than they can reasonably handle.

The report recommends the state dramatically beef up staffing, as well as the recruitment of foster parents and retention programs. The report also calls for creating a legislative committee or other group that can oversee the entire system.

"A worsening shortage of foster parents threatens the fidelity of the state's child welfare system," the auditors wrote. As a result, the foster parents that are left are often pressured to take kids with characteristics or behaviors that they don't feel willing or ready to deal with, and that in turn puts additional stress on those foster families and their case workers.

Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter said Tuesday morning that he has met with Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong and a few others to discuss the report, but that it's too early to talk about plans moving forward.

"We acknowledge this is one where we needed to pay attention. Maybe we should have been paying attention earlier," Otter said.

Still, he said, he has not had a chance to discuss the matter with Legislative leadership since the report was made public on Monday afternoon, and so wasn't ready to talk about potential next steps.

Last year, the state had 974 licensed foster parents, compared with 1,062 in 2014. The problem is longstanding: Idaho's Child and Family Services division has worked to improving the growing shortage of foster parents for at least 13 years, according to the report.

"Foster parents are quitting at nearly the same rate as Child and Family Services is able to recruit them," the auditors noted.

Retention is a big part of the problem: For every 11 foster parents recruited, trained and licensed, the total number of available foster parents only increased by one, according to the report. That means that Child and Family Services workers would have to recruit, train and license about 936 foster parents in a single year to make up for and retain the 88 parents lost since 2014.

Social workers with Child and Family Services are already overwhelmed, the report noted, with significantly more cases than they can reasonably handle. That, too, is a longstanding Idaho problem.

Back in 2007, Child and Family Services determined a need for 75 more workers. At the time, program officials intended to add staff in a multiyear sequence of budget requests, according to the report. But since that time, they've only been able to add about 18 full-time staffers. The number of staff has remained largely unchanged since 2009.

Based on current caseloads, Child and Family Services would need between 57 and 77 additional full-time workers, according to the report.

The organizational culture needs work too, the auditors found. Staffers care deeply about helping children and families, but the culture "can also be described as a culture of compromise with a conflicted sense of efficacy in the face of difficult demands and limited resources and strained relationships with the stakeholders and partners," the auditors wrote.

The state also lacks any system-wide way of tracking accountability and providing oversight. The report recommends that lawmakers consider creating a special legislative standing committee dedicated to child welfare issues as a way for the state to improve accountability and make other needed changes to the system.