By Elizabeth Bell
The Rockbridge County Child Protective Services agency is understaffed after a recent resignation left the department with only one worker to handle its 78 current cases.
The only remaining worker, Wade Cress, is one of seven defendants in a $17 million wrongful death lawsuit filed in July after an infant died in 2016, while under the care of the Rockbridge Area Department of Social Services, also known as RADSS. Child Protective Services, also known as CPS, is a department within RADSS.
When the infant, Charlee Ford, was born, the hospital reported to CPS that she was born with drugs in her system, which means CPS should have considered her case to be “high risk,” the lawsuit says.
But Ford’s case was incorrectly labeled as “low risk,” a special grand jury report says, so she was sent home with her parents. Later, after an outside complaint was made to CPS, Ford’s home environment was changed to “high risk,” but no additional services were offered before the four-month old died, according to the report, which was released on May 2, 2017.
“We need to change things for the citizens of our county, and also for social services workers who have been there for years that have been trying to hold things together with tape and glue.” — Susan Lawrence, community advocate
Ford’s death sparked a state investigation into RADSS and the special grand jury report found “dysfunction within the CPS agency of RADSS from top to bottom,” but no criminal actions.
“[Cress] is now the only CPS investigator in Rockbridge County because everyone else has either quit or resigned or been fired,” said Mark Reed, the administrator of Ford’s estate. “It’s really a big mess over there.”
Cress and RADSS Executive Director Dinah Clark did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails asking for comment.
To deal with the shortage of employees, a CPS regional specialist, Chad Alls, will be available by phone and two other nearby agencies agreed to help with cases if necessary, RADSS Executive Director Dinah Clark told the RADSS board, according to city council minutes from the Sept. 5 meeting.
There are typically two CPS workers in Rockbridge County who divide the caseload. With no one to share the work, Cress’s caseload has doubled.
The average caseload for a child welfare worker is between 24 and 31 children, says the National Association of Social Workers’ website. But the Child Welfare League of America recommends caseloads between 12 and 15 children per worker.
Alls declined to comment on how the shortage of employees has affected CPS’ caseload.
Two RADSS employees in other departments have resigned, too. Across the state, other social services departments have also dealt with understaffing and employee turnover.
Virginia’s child welfare workers are leaving after an average of only 18 to 24 months, Carl Ayers, director of family services with the state Department of Social Services, told the Virginia Mercury in 2018. And as of March, 20 percent of family services specialist positions in Virginia were vacant.
The starting salary for a CPS Family Services Specialist in Rockbridge County is $29,930, according to a LinkedIn listing for the position. This is the minimum starting salary required by the state for the position.
But the U.S. Department of Labor last week set the minimum salary threshold for employees exempt from overtime pay at $35,568. This means that RADSS workers who earn less than that will be eligible for overtime pay, beginning Jan. 1.
RADSS should increase salaries, or implement incentives to attract qualified workers, said Susan Lawrence, a community advocate for over 20 years, who adopted a child from foster care.
Social Services could offer to pay part of employees’ student loans if they agree to work there for a certain number of years, she suggested.
“We need to change things for the citizens of our county, and also for social services workers who have been there for years that have been trying to hold things together with tape and glue,” Lawrence said. “Workers are leaving, but why should they stay, when they can do something and make more money, with less issues.”
To attract more home-based care workers, RADSS increased hourly pay from $7.75 to $9 per hour and increased workers’ hours from 40 to 80 per month, said City Council Member and RADSS Board Member Michelle Hentz at the Lexington City Council meeting Sept. 19. But no financial incentive has been adopted to attract CPS workers or foster parents.
“People look at the situation, and why would you come work here?” Lawrence said. “I don’t think people see what the board has been doing, and it looks like business as usual.”
Last week, Tony McFaddin, the chief deputy of the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office, was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to fill a vacancy on the RADSS board.
Community advocates and local nonprofits have continued to try to improve the situation for Rockbridge County’s most vulnerable citizens. They say there’s more to be done.
“The thing that fixes everything is transparency and accountability,” Lawrence said.
“The biggest problem we have here in Rockbridge is that many in the community, including the Mayor, the City Council, the Board of Supervisors, and many, many others, all care,” Reed said. “But they don’t care enough.”
An event called Foster Rockbridge is being held to raise awareness of the need for foster parents in the community. The event will be at Lexington Baptist Church. Local churches will collect unwrapped toys to donate to RADSS.