The Sampson County Department of Social Services continues to experience massive caseloads that would by itself cause a person’s head to spin. Glitches in a new statewide system, expected to streamline service delivery, has only compounded those headaches, causing overtime hours to rise with DSS staffers’ blood pressure.
Local DSS officials gave a rundown of the problems confronting them during a meeting with county commissioners Monday, at the heart of which were the ongoing problems with N.C. FAST (Families Accessing Services through Technology).
When Sampson began the first phase of implementation a couple years ago, N.C. FAST was expected to improve services by bringing automation to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Social Services county agencies across the state, allowing caseworkers to quickly assess the clients’ needs and determine if they are eligible for public assistance.
It has hit a snag to say the least.
“The N.C. FAST system issues are decreasing operational efficiency and increasing your county costs. The excessive work is stressing the staff beyond any point I’ve ever seen in my career, and it’s stressing their families,” DSS director Sarah Bradshaw said. “We are seeing there is an abundance of work late in the afternoon and into the evening.”
She noted one particular point in early March where those issues — high caseloads and difficulty keying those into N.C. FAST — came to a head.
“You’ve got supervisors and social workers who came to work at 7 or 8 in the morning and they are there at midnight, filing and typing up exhibits and petitions,” Bradshaw said. “I watched them glaze over at midnight. We have got to do different for our county employees.”
Board chairman Jefferson Strickland, through discussions with other county officials within the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, said he heard it was “a nightmare.”
DSS officials agreed.
“Right now, their main objective is to get N.C. FAST working for Medicaid and for Food and Nutrition (Services). The child support portion of it is kind of on the backburner,” said Kay Stafford, DSS Child Support program manager. “We’re backing up and having to go back to paper referrals to get information we would otherwise get through the system.”
While anticipated to be a huge leap forward, and one that would save a great deal of cost over time, it has done just the opposite for the short-term, DSS officials said. In temporary staff, overtime pay and equipment, N.C. FAST is costing the county money.
And a request that increased last year will not only remain, but likely rise again.
“We have spent well over $300,000 in county dollars since N.C. FAST started,” Bradshaw noted. “We have predicted with you that all this was supposed to be a working system and we would be able to take that $300,000 out of the budget effective July 1. We can’t. In fact, it might even expand before it gets better. At some point, with a working N.C. FAST system, I promise you we should not only not have to hire temps, but be able to reduce our public assistance staff.”
For the time being, however, local DSS officials, caseworkers and clerical staff are hoping the state works out the kinks.
“You can see the stress on their face,” Bradshaw said.
‘All of this
County manager Ed Causey attended one of DSS’ staff meetings last month and talked to some of the DSS employees.
“I’ve talked with people for 25 years who were stressed,” Causey noted, “that was the most stressed group of people I’ve ever engaged with my entire career. There were several ladies in there that were to the point of tears. My perception is if they thought it was a problem they could solve in 30 days, they could go with it. I think they’ve been at it so long, they don’t see an end in sight to any of it.”
Clerical staff have pitched in to assist caseworkers, with everyone doing beyond their fair share, Bradshaw asserted.
“Just managing the calls that come in every day, it is challenging,” the DSS director remarked. “All of this is stressing and expanding the workload of staff.”
For March, there were 70 Child Protective Services (CPS) reports.
“That is unheard of,” said Bradshaw, who noted that those monthly CPS reports have increased 44 percent in recent months, averaging around 45 per month previously and now hovering around 65 each month on average.
The number of foster children in Sampson County currently stands at an “all-time high” of 146. Additionally, 26 percent of the population receives Medicaid services and there were 6,800 Food and Nutrition Services cases handled by DSS in January 2014, up from about 5,000 cases in 2010.
Those caseloads, and an unresponsive system that is supposed to make things easier, have caused work hours to spike.
Agencywide so far this year, county employees have put in a collective 5,706 overtime hours, with 11 agency departures just since the second phase of N.C. FAST. There was a spike in retirees last year, so those numbers have not changed a great deal, but Bradshaw noted many of this year’s departures have been for employment elsewhere.
“That has got to turn around,” Bradshaw asserted “Our employees have worked diligently to get N.C. FAST figured out. There are counties around the state that are struggling more than we are, but that is not to say there is not a struggle everywhere, because the system is just not working well. All of these current demands and issues are going to require additional resources for next year’s budget.”
Losing federal funds
Sampson County’s DSS budget totals $140.4 million for the current 2013-14 budget, consisting of $97 million in federal funds (69 percent), $39 million in state (28 percent) and $4.4 million in county funds (3 percent).
Currently, Sampson DSS has 135 full-time staff, two part-time, 12 temporary and five contract employees.
Bradshaw said the department is planning to experiment with an on-call shift, asking employees who are willing to come on into work in the early afternoon and work until 8 p.m. to deal with the caseloads and the time taken by N.C. FAST.
“This is what is happening at Sampson County DSS and we’ve got to work on it and support the staff,” Bradshaw noted. “If we can do the work a little bit differently. We’re trying to test it for May and June with the existing level of staff.”
Further compounding needs is the loss of federal funding in the form of Social Services Block Grants, which are reimbursed at 75 percent federal/state funds and 25 percent county funds.
“The federal government is passing expenditures off to the state, and the state to the county,” the DSS director pointed out. “The workload is expanding and we’re getting less federal support, and that is a problem. When a social worker’s salary is 75 percent reimbursed (with the county paying 25 percent), in order to negate the $123,000 increase in county contribution, we would have to eliminate 13.5 social worker positions.”
That just cannot be done, with more — not less — resources needed, she said. Bradshaw suggested the county look into the expense of equipment versus hiring new social workers, in an effort to “work smarter, not harder.”
“We could be sitting here saying we need 12 or more social workers,” said Bradshaw. “They don’t have tablets in the field right now. We are behind times. Counties have got tablets and our social workers have legal pads and they’re going out and writing up notes. Then they have to come back in and take double time transferring those notes. If they are sitting there with a tablet they can plug it in (at the office) and it’s there.”
Saundra Hines, Social Work program manager, and Bradshaw said they are seeing numbers regarding foster children that have never been higher. Some cases drag on due to a packed court docket and family needs, keeping those children in the DSS system.
“The child just continues to linger in the system,” Hines noted.
“There may be some of those who might be returned next month,” Bradshaw added, “but you see what happens when we get 70 calls a month and those reports are being substantiated. Children are coming into care at a greater rate than they are being reunited with families or placed in a permanent home, adoptive or otherwise.”
While some children may come and go in the system in a matter of weeks, there are some children whose trauma requires more in-depth care, and monthly expenses can get up to $3,500-$4,000 just for that one child.
It is a microcosm of the larger issues with which Sampson DSS — and others across the state — are being confronted on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.
“Within any given month, we’re working with at least one-third of the county population,” Bradshaw said. “We are definitely an economic engine for the county. Just for Medicaid, Food and Nutrition, Work First and child support, those bring in $5.8 million into the county monthly.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.