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Child welfare review panels say Idaho health department isn’t listening to concerns

Rotunda at the Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
Rotunda at the Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

More children staying in Airbnbs, hotels for extended periods amid shortage of foster families

The Idaho Legislature’s Child Protection Legislative Oversight Committee met for the first time in more than a year Friday and heard from many people working within the state’s child welfare system about numerous issues concerning staffing, safety and support for foster care families.

The committee, which was established in 2018 following a report from the Office of Performance Evaluations showing deficiencies in Idaho’s child protection system, is composed of four senators and four representatives. Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, and House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, lead the committee.

Legislators heard from representatives of Citizen Review Panels, which were also established in 2018 and are made up of volunteers who are in charge of relaying concerns about the child welfare systems in each of the state’s seven health regions. Brian McCauley, who is on the review panel that includes Ada County, told legislators his top worry is about child safety. He said people concerned for a child’s welfare are calling the department many times before the child is brought into state protection.

“We’re seeing a lot of cases with a significant number of safety referrals prior to (the child’s) entry into the foster care system,” McCauley said. “I’m not one for rushing in and removing children at a single allegation, but … our record right now is 44 safety referrals prior to a child being brought into foster care and many of those allegations were significant.”

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is aware of that issue, McCauley said, but it has not been resolved.

Members of Citizen Review Panels from other regions of the state said they share the same concern over a high number of safety referrals and the number of social workers continually leaving the department. Several also mentioned a high number of parents and families struggling with substance abuse issues.

Cindy Floyd, a member of the Region 3 Citizen Review Panel that includes Canyon County, told legislators the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is not listening to their recommendations, which are submitted annually.

“We have a huge social worker shortage, and it’s a crisis in Region 3,” Floyd said. “They’re saying that they’re making strides and progress in this area by hiring (psychosocial rehabilitation specialists) alongside those who are doing the work, but when a social worker’s caseload is 22 to 25, there is no time to train those helping hands and it only becomes a barrier to the piles of work that are in front of these social workers.”

Floyd added the COVID-19 pandemic might have exacerbated the shortage but noted the Office of Performance Evaluations report in 2017 recommended 57 to 77 more social workers, and since that report, only a total of nine social workers have been added. And with that shortage, the department has estimated 40% to 50% vacancy rates in social worker positions in communities across Idaho, Floyd said.

Cameron Gilliland, administrator of the health department’s Family and Community Services, said foster children are continuing to be placed in Airbnb rentals and hotels because of a lack of foster parents. Gilliland said 67 children have stayed in those accommodations in the past six months, usually for up to 10 days but sometimes “quite a bit longer” than that.

Gilliland said the department has also hired a recruiter to try to find more social workers and has offered bonuses to some social workers in an effort to retain them through the next year.

The committee, which met remotely, took no testimony from the public, but Lee said she plans to schedule another meeting just before the next legislative session is scheduled to begin on Jan. 10.

At that time, she hopes to see recommendations for proposed legislation to address some of the concerns brought up on Friday.

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