New foster care social work position approved; current case load exceeds state recommendations

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Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

Patrick Betancourt, director of Macon County Department of Social Services, reported to county commissioners on Tuesday night that the county’s foster care case load has reached 50 children who are now in the care of the county’s foster care system. The state recommends that foster care social workers should handle about 15 cases each, but Macon County’s two foster care social workers have managed in excess of at least 10 cases more each since 2012, a trend Betancourt said can’t continue.

“Our social workers have far exceeded the state-recommended caseload and with taking on our 50th child last week, it’s just not something we can continue to do,” said Betancourt. “The risk for burnout for social work is high, making it extremely hard to retain qualified employees. We have one social worker who has been with us for nearly 20 years and that’s invaluable. But we are at risk of losing that person if we don’t do something to lessen the caseloads.”

Macon County’s DSS will be undergoing a State Child Welfare review in April and the current caseload, which continues to grow, will likely raise concern by state staff if not addressed.

Betancourt said the complexity of the cases in Macon County continues to change and increase, with more than 80 percent of all foster care cases in the county involving parent/caretaker substance abuse, while more than half of the cases involve mental health issues or significant parental cognitive limitations.

DSS, while county administered, is state supervised, so the department has to follow state regulations and mandates. Currently, foster care social workers are responsible for 25 regulated actions per child in foster care each month. Those actions include visiting every child in their placed home every month. Out of Macon County’s 50 children, 13 children are located elsewhere in the state due to the lack of foster families locally. Betancourt noted that it doesn’t matter if a child is housed in Macon County or in New Hanover County, the two foster care social workers employed by Macon County must travel to those homes at least once a month.

“It’s common that our social workers spend the entire day on the road traveling to Winston Salem or Charlotte to visit a child in foster care,” said Betancourt “A couple times a month our social workers are pulling into the parking lot at work well after dark after a full day on the road.”

After those home visits, the county’s social workers are then also responsible for 10-15 page forms for health and education components, weekly parent/caretaker visits, individual therapy sessions, school visits, sibling visitations, and other things that make taking on any additional cases nearly impossible.

Betancourt informed commissioners that he didn’t need any money from the county to establish the new position, rather just permission to advertise to fill the position since DSS is administered by the county. DSS currently has state and federal dollars that will cover the cost of the position through 2019.

Recognizing the need for the position and to ensure foster children in Macon County continue to be well-cared for, the Macon County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to approve the new position. Betancourt noted that his next challenge would be finding a qualified applicant to fill the vacancy and be able to start immediately, another challenge that foster programs across the state are experiencing.

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