LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - For years, WAVE 3 News has reported the problems and complaints against Kentucky's Child Protection System.
One important part of the system WAVE 3 News has never aired, because no one has been willing to go on record, on camera, is the perspective of a current CPS front-line caseworker.
And what she had to say sheds new light on the problems.
“As of today I had 174,” CPS caseworker Kristin Pendley said, talking about her caseload. “The highest I’ve been at is 242, and that was a few months ago.”
WAVE 3 News asked Pendley how she can do an effective job when she has 170 or more cases.
“You can’t,” she said. “You simply can’t.”
Pendley is not alone, especially in Jefferson County. The Council on Accreditation recommends caseloads not exceed 18 per worker, but Kentucky case listings data obtained by WAVE 3 News shows several Jefferson County investigators’ current individual caseloads in May topping 200, and others not far behind.
What was most alarming were the “Past Due” cases that have an intake date but still no assessment submitted. Slightly more than 5,000 of the 6,581 open cases in Jefferson County in May were “Past Due” on allegations like sexual abuse, physical assault and neglect. A large portion of them had gone more than six months without assessment. They’re supposed to be done within 45 days.
How long have some waited? The list of the top 25 oldest past dues shows several topping 800 days. That’s more than two years.
“Because we’re not fixing the problem, because we don’t have the time to fully get these families the services they need, we’re getting repeat cases, (the) same families we didn’t help the first time, so we’re just getting them back a second time,” Pendley said. “It’s just a compounding issue.”
“It’s unmanageable,” Department for Community Based Services Commissioner Eric Clark said. "It’s unsustainable. It’s unfair. It’s not right.
“We are very well aware of our past dues here in Jefferson County. And when you take the statewide total of past dues, Jefferson County is well over half the past dues of the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky.”
So what is the problem?
“A big part of these past dues are the result of turnover,” DCBS Chief of Staff Lesa Dennis said. “Staff left. Left caseloads and we have reassigned them to other workers.”
She said 21 new caseworkers have been hired for Jefferson County in 2019. But 34 have quit over the same time.
“Average salary for frontline workers is $32,000,” Clark said. “$32,000, in a place like Jefferson County, state average salaries cannot compete with other opportunities out there.”
Clark said it’s time for a new culture and practice within CPS: Stop blaming already-stressed workers when they make mistakes, and ask for help from communities.
“This work is serious business,” Clark said. “There are real consequences to the responsibilities we put on our social workers every day. The decision to remove a child or not is traumatic.”
Pendley isn’t quitting. She said she became a CPS caseworker to make a positive difference in the world. But she hasn’t been able to at times, and those times still bother her.
“If we had been able to fully assess and investigate, we could’ve really saved these three children significant amounts of trauma,” an emotional Pendley recalled of one case. “Sorry, worst case I’ve ever had. I’ve continually asked for feedback on how do I manage this? I want to manage it. I want to continue working here. I want to keep doing this work. But I go home every night and worry about the 170 cases I didn’t get to, instead of the 10 I worked on.”
In the meantime, if you’ve been waiting for months or years for movement in your CPS case, they promise they’ll get to you. Clark said they are putting a plan together to bring in a private provider to take on some of the “Past Due” cases.