Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

‘I have not seen it like this’: Idaho’s child welfare safety net is wearing thin

A boy in foster care plays a game while waiting for placement with a foster family (Courtesy of Cindy Floyd).
A boy in foster care plays a game while waiting for placement with a foster family (Courtesy of Cindy Floyd).

Court advocate says situation has been a ‘slow-moving disaster’ since 2019

So far this year, at least 44 Idaho children removed from their homes for safety reasons have stayed in short-term rentals or hotel rooms, often sharing the space with other foster children.

A majority of those temporary placements happened just since August. They cost the state about $40,000 so far. Before this year, they were so rare that the department didn’t keep a consolidated record of how many times they occurred.

Cameron Gilliland, administrator of Family and Community Services for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, said the stays range from one to 10 days and usually involve older children, who are harder to place in foster homes.

Idaho is facing a shortage of available foster homes that has reached a crisis point, according to child welfare advocates — one that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a shortage of social workers, who have been quitting their jobs due in part to burnout.

Foster families are hard to come by even in the best of times. In federal fiscal year 2018, the number of children in foster care in Idaho was 3,012; there were only 1,476 licensed foster homes, 783 of which were relatives of the foster children, leaving 656 homes for children without relatives who could take them in. In fiscal 2020, those numbers were 2,883 children in foster care with 1,500 licensed homes — 804 who were relatives and 694 for children without available relatives.

Although overall numbers are not finalized for fiscal 2021, which ended Sept. 30, the department has said it lost at least 50 more foster families that year.

Gilliland said the COVID-19 pandemic made some foster parents reluctant to bring children into their homes, while others had different reasons. In 2020, 189 foster families requested to have a child move out of their homes because they were unable to manage the child’s behavior, while 187 said they were requesting a change to their foster situation because they had only agreed to be a temporary foster family. Another 163 simply cited personal reasons.

While the number of fosters who requested changes in 2020 was lower than 2019, behavioral problems were a bigger contributing factor, according to reports from the Department of Health and Welfare. In 2019, 29% said they requested a change because of behavior difficulties, versus 35% in 2020.

Association director says social worker burnout in Idaho is the worst he’s ever seen

Delmar Stone, executive director and lobbyist for the Idaho chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said the job has always been stressful for this area of social work, but the stress has become too much for many case workers.

“We have never done a very good job of taking care of social workers who do that kind of work, for sure, and what we are seeing in Idaho is a lot of burnout that frankly I have not seen,” Stone said. “I’ve been the executive director since 2006, and I have not seen it like this before.”

Stone said in the past three months, four case management supervisors in Boise have quit.

As of early November, the Department of Health and Welfare said there were 27 social worker vacancies, with another 20 to 30 openings for support staff to help with case work.

Stone said social workers don’t speak up publicly about their workload and stress levels because they are beholden to keeping so much of their work private.

“I wish that we had a whistleblower kind of (hotline), because there’s so much that’s confidential about everything they do, who can they turn to?” Stone said.

Jenny Easley is a court-appointed special advocate for Region 3 of Idaho’s health and welfare system, which covers Canyon County and five other counties. By Idaho statute, children aged 12 and younger are appointed an advocate to represent their best interests in protection cases where the child has been removed from a home.

“We get calls all the time from foster parents who can’t reach a social worker and have a crisis or need for the child, but they can’t reach anybody at the department to do that because the case workers have 20-plus other families they’re trying to serve at the same time,” Easley said. “So that has caused more foster shortage, which has caused more pressure on case workers.”

Easley said the situation has been a slow-moving disaster over the past two years. Prior to 2020, Easley said social worker caseloads in Idaho were already high — around 18 per case worker, while the national recommendation is 10 to 12 cases per worker. Cases can be single or multiple children, depending on the circumstances.

“Now they’re all operating around 24 (cases), sometimes even more,” Easley said. “I know a lot of people are saying that … the mass exodus we’re seeing of case workers leaving is causing an emergency, which I think is true, but I think the emergency started before that, and I think case workers are leaving because it becomes unmanageable.”

Cindy Floyd is the Boise volunteer coordinator for Office Moms and Dads, an organization based in Tacoma, Washington, whose volunteers keep children company in a social worker’s office after the children have been removed from a home. Floyd is also part of the Citizen Review Panel in Caldwell, where she said the social worker shortage is severe. Supervisors are working to fill in gaps left by social workers who have quit, and bringing in other technicians to help with work that doesn’t require a license.

“That turnover affects so much, because if a social worker quits … (someone else has) got to pick up that case, familiarize themselves with it and speak to that case in court,” Floyd said. “It affects that case in the short term as well as the long term.”

Child abuse-related calls and deaths have surged in Idaho over the past two years

The department does not have formal administrative rules around short-term rental and hotel stays, primarily because it is a last resort, emergency option that staff doesn’t intend to keep doing, said Health and Welfare spokesperson Niki Forbing-Orr.

There are internal ground rules around keeping medications in locked cabinets and making sure only children who are siblings share rooms. Two department staffers who have had background checks stay with the children at all times, but they don’t have to be social workers, Forbing-Orr said. Deputy directors from the agency have stepped in at various points as well. 

Easley and others worry the stress levels on case workers and the department as a whole will lead to bigger safety issues for children. While she’s grateful for the workers who are staying with children overnight at Airbnbs, she worries about the greater effects.

“I worry that, either consciously or unconsciously, it may lead to putting kids back with families who aren’t ready to have them back, because compared to the instability of foster placements, what’s worse?” Easley said. “I’ve been involved with a kid who was being returned to a parent more quickly than I thought was prudent, and they were saying, ‘Well, he’s going to so many different foster placements, we don’t really have a good option,’ and I just said if we didn’t have a foster parent crisis, I think this conversation would be different.”

Data from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare show that in 2020, the number of children placed in foster care was actually the lowest number in the past five years, but the severity of abuse has increased. More children were removed because of abuse and abandonment in 2020 than in 2019.

While the number of children coming into the state’s care has not significantly changed over the past year, the type of referral calls have, according to the department. The number of calls identified as top priority because a child experienced significant physical or sexual abuse rose from 23% of calls in 2020 to 32% in 2021.

According to nonprofit organization Idaho Voices for Children, St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital admitted five children with physical injuries attributed to abuse or neglect in 2019.

In 2020, the hospital admitted 19 children with those injuries.

Prior to 2020, the last child death attributed to abuse was in 2017. But last year alone, five child abuse-related deaths were reported.

Long waits for mental health resources contribute to issues across Idaho, advocates say

Easley said high caseloads for social workers also erode the support available for existing foster families, making it more difficult for them to manage problematic behaviors or find help when they need it.

Not only that, but the resources a social worker would connect foster children to, such as behavioral health care, have wait lists between three and nine months long, Easley said. The entire state is a federally designated mental health care shortage area. And for some children, the longer an issue goes untreated, the worse it can become — which also makes it more difficult to place them with a foster family.

“Nobody likes sending kids to (mental health) facilities, but they get to the level where the department has no other options,” Easley said. “Too often we see that, and it’s frustrating.”

The shortage of mental health resources in Idaho also affects social workers themselves, who experience stress and trauma from the situations they deal with on a daily basis. Stone said social workers have struggled to access help when they need it.

Idaho Health and Welfare may request wage increases

Gilliland said the department has hired a recruiter to help find new social workers, and they are seeking out former employees to try to hire them back or offer part-time work. He said the department is also borrowing other social workers from across the state to help in areas where the shortage is more acute, along with reallocating resources from the central office in Boise to regional offices.

The department has also implemented recruitment and retention bonuses for social workers in the areas of case management and safety assessments. There is a $2,000 sign-on bonus for child welfare social workers and another $2,000 bonus after a nine-month probation period and completion of training.

“We are reassessing what can be done by social workers versus other professionals to see if we can get more work out of those other professionals and still maintain the quality, so we’re really looking closely at that,” Gilliland said. “We’ve seen less people leaving, but we’re not seeing a tidal wave of people moving in to take the jobs, so we’re still pretty stressed and looking for ways we can address that.”

Gilliland said the department is also looking at pushing for increased wages for social workers in the upcoming session of the Idaho Legislature. An Idaho child welfare case worker currently starts at $22.63 per hour. At the top end of the pay range, for a veteran social worker, it is $27 per hour.

Gilliland said the department’s foster care recruitment contractor has launched renewed efforts to find foster parents, too. They are reaching out to former foster parents, visiting church and community groups to seek new foster parents, and providing incentives for successful referrals and for foster parents willing to foster teenagers. The department has also developed a budget request to increase foster parent reimbursement rates and is reviewing licensing processes to shorten the time it takes for families to be licensed, which has increased to nearly a year in some cases.

Stone said he has been lobbying for higher wages to legislators but has seen no movement on the issue so far.

“We’re sitting on this over $1 billion surplus just from what we have in Idaho, I don’t understand why there isn’t (action),” he said. “Idaho talks a lot about how we care for our children, and Gov. (Brad) Little has talked about that, how he wants to have an Idaho where our children decide to stay here, and part of that, I would think, is taking care of our children who are hurting the most. I think that our values are reflected in our budget, and it’s a sad situation, because that’s not the Idaho that they’re talking about that we’re seeing right now.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.