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"Over the past three years, an average of 36 children in Louisiana died as a result of child abuse and currently nearly 5,000 children are living in foster care," said Secretary Nichols. "We believe that even one child abuse case is too many, and in order to improve our outcomes relating to child safety, it is imperative that we work to provide training based on evidence-based practices and updated technology and tools that our staff need to protect children from abuse, cruelty and neglect."
In ensuring the safety of children, DSS will maximize existing resources, rely on partnerships with national advocacy groups and use one time federal funds. As a first step, DSS will work collaboratively with OCS workers, law enforcement, and judicial and community partners to develop and implement a child welfare practice model that serves as the overall guidelines child welfare workers will use in ensuring the safety of children. The model will be a family-centered approach focusing on four principal outcomes: Children are safe; Families are strengthened; Communities are engaged; and Children and youth have permanence.
DSS also will implement evidence-based Structured Decision Making in child protective cases. Currently that process, which guides caseworkers through questions and critical risk factors, is utilized by DSS in foster care and family service cases.
Additionally, the department will continue to work to improve the safety of children in out-of-home placements by developing new licensing standards and regulations for child residential facilities.
One major challenge facing the Office of Community Services is staff training and retention. Statewide, 16 percent of all OCS staff that work directly with clients on the frontline have been on the job for less than one year, with six years being the average amount of experience among all frontline staff. For Fiscal Year 2008 alone, more than 16 percent of child welfare workers left OCS.
Those numbers are higher in Calcasieu Parish, where OCS offices have faced high staff turnover since the 2005 storms, with 32 of 38 caseworkers having one year of experience or less, and six of eight supervisors having one year or less of supervisory experience.
To combat that problem, DSS will invest in training and workforce retention that will include expanding the Lake Charles peer-to-peer mentoring initiative, coaching and mentoring of field supervisors and on-line training for critical skills such as court preparation and structured decision making.
"Staff retention is critical to providing consistent interventions for children and families over time, providing mentoring by experienced caseworkers and supervisors, and fostering peer-to-peer learning for new staff," said Nichols. "Training and modernizing processes and equipment will make caseload management less of a burden and allow caseworkers to do the work they are trained for and passionate about, which is working to protect children and help families, not spending a majority of their time completing and filing paperwork manually."
DSS is receiving assistance from the Children's Research Center, a national nonprofit that assists child welfare agencies reduce child abuse and neglect and improve service delivery to children and families by focusing on four areas -- safety, risk, assessment of family functioning and case planning. CRC will train OCS workers to use proven evidence-based tools to aid in critical decision making and in moving families toward a safer level of functioning. These tools will help caseworkers assess whether a family is ready for reunification or if reunification should continue to be the case goal.
Training and workforce investments also will include the development of a Child Welfare Training Academy with Louisiana universities to provide common undergraduate and graduate child welfare curricula to provide students the opportunity to specialize and develop child welfare expertise.
"Training based on national level expertise and child welfare curricula offered at our universities will increase the pool of qualified welfare workers, improve staff retention and give caseworkers the skills they need to manage the unique needs of Louisiana's children and families," Nichols said.
DSS also plans to invest in new technology including secure laptops for caseworkers, electronic case records, Safe Measure performance-based management software and a centralized intake for child protection investigations.
Nichols said that in meeting with caseworkers across the state, she has heard widespread frustration caused by a lack of technology available to workers, which causes delays in filing the required case documentation because it has to be completed at an office. This reduces the time caseworkers have to dedicate to working with children and families in the field.
In addition, intake of child abuse reports is handled by caseworkers and other staff on a parish level, which disrupts the management work of OCS field staff and does not ensure consistent intake procedures.
"By centralizing intake, providing one number for residents to call to report cases of child abuse and staffing it with well-trained staff equipped to handle calls in a consistent manner, caseworkers in the field will be better able to focus on protecting children," Nichols said.
Nichols said that staff should begin to see activities related to these investments immediately and with their commitment and that of our community partners, we will see improved outcomes for the children and families we serve.