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Lack of social workers, foster homes leaves kids in lurch 

Idaho’s child protection services are struggling, with some kids being left in unsafe homes despite dozens of complaints and others forced to stay in hotels because there aren’t enough foster parents to take them in, members of a legislative panel were recently told. 

The Child Protection Legislative Oversight Committee heard from members of citizen review panels around the state in preparation for the 2022 legislation session that starts Jan. 10. The review panels — made up of volunteers who are tasked with evaluating the child protection systems in their regions — reported that social workers are woefully overworked, causing some to quit and leaving others with impossibly high caseloads. Meanwhile, kids are falling through the cracks. 

In the four-county region that includes the city of Boise, one child was referred for protective services 44 times before being brought in to foster care, said Brian McCauley with that region’s citizen review panel.

Mom giving support trust to little daughter.

In other cases, family court judges are sometimes ordering children and estranged parents to participate in reunification therapy together, despite criminal investigations or even protection orders being pursued against the parent. 

“Imagine an adult being forced to sit down and reunify with a perpetrator of a violent crime against them — we would never do that to an adult, but oftentimes that is what we are doing to little kids,” McCauley told the committee. 

Cindy Floyd, who sits on the review panel that includes the southwestern cities of Nampa and Caldwell, said social workers in her region are dealing with as many as 25 cases at a time. Floyd said that was a “massive overload,” but rather than hire enough social workers, the state has tried to fill the gaps by bringing in underqualified staffers. 

Those staffers sometimes miss red flags, such as a parent who naps during a supervised hourlong visit with a baby — behavior Floyd said can indicate potential substance abuse problems. 

Idaho’s Office of Performance Evaluations told lawmakers in 2017 that child protection workers were dealing with a massive overload of cases, each handling around 14 or 15 a month. Today, social workers in her region handle between 22 and 25 cases at a time, Floyd said. 

Citizen review panel members also said they sometimes have trouble getting the documents they need to review cases from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, and feel their recommendations and reports sometimes are ignored by those in charge. 

Foster parents are also in short supply, with some leaving because they don’t feel like enough is being done to fix the problems in the child protection system, lawmakers were told. 

Cameron Gilliland, administrator of the health department’s Family and Community Services, acknowledged that in the past several months, dozens of children have been temporarily placed in short-term rentals like AirBnB residences and hotel rooms while the state tries to find suitable homes. 

“That is simply because we have lacked foster parents,” Gilliland said. 

That’s partly because the pandemic has made it harder to recruit new foster parents and the state’s population has increased dramatically, Gilliland said, but also because the department is seeing “harder kids, frankly.” 

Teenagers with significant behavior or other issues can be difficult to place in foster homes, he said. The state is now offering $500 recruitment bonuses for some foster parents who take teens. 

Gilliland also said the state has made progress in some areas, including giving bonuses to social workers in hopes of keeping them on staff, bringing in help from social workers in parts of the state that have lower caseloads, and hiring a recruiter to find more staffers. 

“I think we are managing to cover things. Children are being seen, and the work is being done,” he said. 

Lawmakers will need to put political philosophies aside and work together to advocate for kids, said Sen. Melissa Wintrow, a Democrat from Boise. 

“This is the toughest, biggest, most wicked problem in our state,” she said. “What I want to see is all of us — not just you, but the Legislature, the courts, every single person on this planet be an advocate for kids.” 

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