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‘Wonderful news’: Funding increases create more optimism for Idaho child welfare system

Creative little Asian girl crouching on the floor playing with wooden building blocks at home
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Creative little Asian girl crouching on the floor playing with wooden building blocks at home

Reimbursement rates for foster families went up on April 1

While caseloads for social workers across Idaho are still high and foster families are still needed, the outlook within the Child Welfare division of the Department of Health and Welfare is better than it was a few months ago now that Gov. Brad Little has signed new funding for the department into law.

The Idaho Legislature approved a budget bill in March that included $96.6 million for Idaho’s child welfare system, with 24 additional employees, pay increases and increases to the reimbursement rate for foster families.

Family and Community Services Program Specialist Julie Sevcik said many foster parents responded to a survey conducted by Health and Welfare in 2020 with comments related to the rates, saying the cost of fostering a child is significantly greater than the reimbursement. Depending on age, the rate worked out to about $13 a day for some families, which survey respondents said was too low for the care of any child.

“We have also heard from potential foster parents in the Treasure Valley that they were unable to become foster parents, as the cost of obtaining housing that would provide for a bedroom for children in foster care was out of reach,” Sevcik said.

The increase went into effect April 1, after the Legislature approved a retroactive rate increase to cover the last three months of fiscal year 2022, which ends in July.

Reimbursement rates for Idaho foster families increased 30-60% in April

Cameron Gilliland, administrator of the Family and Community Services department, said foster families received letters notifying them of the increase this week. For some families, he expected the news would be a pleasant surprise.

“No foster parent gets into foster care for the money, they get into it because they’re driven to help children and families,” Gilliland said. “I think this keeps (them from having to) pay money out of their own pocket on top of all that time and service. I think this is adequate to meet that need or come closer to it.”

Sevcik said the department will hear more feedback from parents in the coming weeks, but some have already said the increase is wonderful news and a huge improvement.

Prior to the increase, reimbursement rates ranged between $395 and $674 per month depending on the age of the child, which was the lowest rate among Western states. The new rates range between $632 and $876, which Gilliland said puts Idaho in the mid-range among the states.

The Idaho Capital Sun reported late last year that the department was struggling to find foster families for placement, to the point that nearly 70 children had stayed in Airbnb residences for 10 days or longer between June and December of 2021. Gilliland said there is still a shortage of families, but recruitment is improving now that COVID-19 case numbers have dwindled, and test positivity rates are low statewide.

The department is working to improve the speed of its training process for foster families, Gilliland said, and there is a high need for foster parents who can work with children who have more complex behavioral needs.

Social worker shortage continues, but outlook is better, Idaho department official says

The approved budget includes funding for 21 new social worker positions in case management and safety assessment, two of the highest priority areas for the Child Welfare division. Three new positions were also added for psychosocial rehabilitation specialists, who support social workers with more administrative tasks.

Case workers are still managing as many as 20 cases in parts of Idaho, Gilliland said, which is too high. The high caseloads are partially caused by high turnover among social workers, which the Idaho Capital Sun reported about last year in a series of stories. During the 2021 fiscal year, 83 people voluntarily quit their jobs in the Child Welfare division of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. At least 24 of those resignations were mid-level social workers, who said in their exit interviews that stress and workload was the primary reason they quit.

Delmar Stone, executive director and lobbyist for the Idaho chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, told the Sun in January that he was extremely disappointed with the governor’s request for 21 new social worker positions, even though it was double what the department said it planned to ask for in December.

“We needed at least 55 new social workers back in 2017,” Stone wrote in an email.

Gilliland said the department has a recruiter who is looking for social workers, but the backup plan is to continue using support staff to fill in the gaps as much as possible.

“There’s a whole pool of folks out there who don’t have social work degrees but are interested in social work, and a lot of people move to Idaho and apply for those jobs,” he said. “We are staffing some of those up and using them for parts of case management work that doesn’t require that degree.”

Client services technicians are part of the support staff who help transport foster children to various appointments as needed. That position has existed for about nine months, and until recently made about $13 per hour, Gilliland said. The department has increased that to $16 per hour, which he hopes will help with retention and recruitment efforts for those employees.

“They really love that job and helping oversee those positions,” he said. “With that increase, we hope to be able to hire more and not have our case managers have to do that as much.”

Case managers and safety assessors will also receive a salary increase of 7%, on top of a statewide 3% increase. After the department requested a change from the Idaho Division of Human Resources, those workers also now receive overtime pay instead of comp time.

Gilliland said he’s working on outreach efforts to make sure workers feel better supported. He hosts “Cam’s Corner” with staff every other week, and a fireside chat once a month to hear feedback and any suggestions for improvement. Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen will also visit offices across the state to job shadow with social workers.

Gilliland said the department started a monthly wellness class hosted by a psychiatrist called “From Burnout to Joy,” and a new initiative called “The Year of the Employee” focused on employee appreciation.

“If we can help people deal with their stress while decreasing staff load, I think it will make a real difference this upcoming year,” Gilliland said.