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Kansas’ vulnerable children deserve best social workers

Sometimes you just have to trust your gut reaction.

In an editorial last week, The Eagle editorial board began its consideration of a Kansas Department for Children and Families staffing proposal with this statement: “At first glance, it seems a preposterous and careless proposal: Spend $5.4 million to hire 200 unlicensed social workers to investigate reports of child neglect and abuse around Kansas.”

The editorial wondered whether the department really “wants neophytes watching over our state’s most vulnerable children.” Despite these rational reservations, the editorial throws caution to the prairie winds and endorses this misguided proposal.

While this approach would make a mockery of the concept of protecting vulnerable children in Kansas, it is also an assault on the social work profession and a direct attack on the ability of these professionals to have a voice on how to care for abused or neglected children — and what resources are needed to perform this essential service.

As The Eagle noted, DCF has far too many vacant social-worker positions. But rather than calling on the Legislature to take steps to really deal with that situation, the editorial board throws in the towel on making sure that kids get the professional support they need and deserve.

The unlicensed and underqualified workers proposed by DCF will do little to ease the work of the professional social workers, who would still have to supervise all cases. So the caseloads would still be high — despite nearly universal agreement that reducing caseloads at DCF and its private contractors is one key to attracting more social workers.

Child neglect and abuse are complicated problems. It is not necessary to detail recent cases in which those problems have led to tragedy. There is little reason to believe that an infusion of unqualified staff will prevent future tragedies.

But those who back the DCF plan say there is no alternative. That is like saying that the roof has blown off the house in a rainstorm and there’s no alternative for the future but to buy more rain slickers. The real solution is to fix the roof and restore the structural integrity of the dwelling.

The same is true for the DCF and the structure of its social work services.

First, the additional money proposed for unqualified new staff could be directed to hiring licensed professional social workers instead. Show members of the profession that the department is committed to adequate credentialed staffing.

Second, as The Eagle editorial acknowledged, better compensation for social workers would result in more applicants. It would also see lower turnover among existing professional staff.

Third, the work structure for social workers could be upgraded. There should be a career ladder that allows them to advance based on their experience, performance and professional development, such as advanced degrees and other training.

Finally, there has been little actual discussion with the professional staff whose work would be affected. Last week, the department said it sought public input, but it has so far failed to reveal any of the comments. According to one news report, the concerns raised included high turnover among caseworkers, insufficient oversight of contractors, excessive caseloads, lack of funding for staff and insufficient training.

Maybe the administration should not rush haphazardly to endorse this idea in the closing days of the session.

Sometimes your first impression is right on target.

Becky Fast is executive director of the Kansas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. Sarah LaFrenz is president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees.