LINCOLN — Nearly four of every 10 child welfare workers in Nebraska have to handle more cases than state law allows, according to a report delivered Thursday to state lawmakers.
A top official with the State Department of Health and Human Services said he hopes to solve the problem by finding efficiencies and expanding efforts to prevent child abuse and neglect.
Doug Weinberg, the children and family services director, said he will have a better idea within six months whether additional staff is needed to ease caseloads.
But members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee expressed concern that the agency is not doing enough to turn around a long-standing problem.
State Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha said high caseloads have been blamed in the deaths and serious injuries of 26 children in recent years. “To me, it’s a crisis that reaches the level of crisis that we see in (the Department of) Corrections,” she said. “We need to re-evaluate if the department has the budget they need to meet the caseload standard.”
Howard introduced the legislative resolution leading to Thursday’s interim study hearing. She said HHS has been fighting high child welfare caseloads for more than a decade. Those concerns led to the law setting caseload caps.
Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, the committee chairwoman, said she believes that the state does not have enough workers to protect Nebraska children.
“I worry, I truly worry,” she said, noting that HHS did not ask for additional child welfare employees in its recent budget request.
The new report showed that as of the end of June, 158 of the 424 front-line child welfare workers had caseloads higher than the standard set out by state law.
Under that standard, workers doing initial assessments of child abuse and neglect reports should have no more than 12 cases. Workers handling ongoing abuse and neglect cases should have no more than 17 cases.
But some workers exceeded that standard by six or more cases, including 19 who exceeded it by more than 10 cases. Workers in the western, northern and eastern services areas of the state were more likely to have heavy caseloads.
Weinberg said HHS is pursuing several strategies to better manage the work. Some seek to streamline the paperwork involved with child welfare cases. Others aim to help front-line workers by better training supervisors and giving more duties to support staff.
The department also is developing a way to assign cases based on the amount of time that they require, such as the size of the family, the risk of future problems and travel time.
In addition, HHS has launched a review of all non-case manager positions in child welfare to see if any can be reassigned.
Weinberg said he expects the review and the new case assignment system to be done next year.
Julie Rogers, the state’s inspector general for child welfare, told the committee that her office has repeatedly cited high caseloads as a major problem in child welfare.
“When staff have too much work, corners get cut, things get missed and errors are made,” she said.
Rogers told of one case that her office investigated this year in which a 4-year-old boy wound up in the hospital with a broken skull and bruises covering his body.
She said high caseloads contributed to that result, which occurred despite 11 calls to the child abuse hotline over the prior six months that went unheeded or were deemed unfounded.
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