Governor Kim Reynolds' appointee to head the Iowa Department of Human Services today painted a bleak picture of morale among Iowa's child protection workers, citing high caseloads and recent high-profile child abuse deaths.
Director Jerry Foxhoven told the Iowa Council on Human Services that he's been visiting with social workers individually and in groups to assess the needs on the front lines.
He says some workers have not met personally with the top DHS official since the days of the Tom Vilsack administration.
“Morale is not good, as I'm sure you can imagine,” Foxhoven said. “Their caseloads are somewhat high and they're just bureaucratically worn out by the bureaucracy that we have.”
Foxhoven met with social workers in Polk County and found they lack basic tools such as smartphones to aid their work in the field.
‘They have the old phones that look like Barack Obama's did where you slide 'em up and they have the keyboard,” Foxhoven said. “It doesn’t have the internet or anything, so if they're out to see a family and that's not where they are they couldn't Google it. They have to go back to the office.”
Foxhoven said Polk County Supervisors have agreed to upgrade cellphones for the case workers.
The Director said he is looking for efficiencies in DHS operations in order to hire more front-line staff.
But Sen. Amanda Ragan (D-Mason City) was skeptical about making a difference in that way, when the agency's budget was cut as much as it was this year.
“Field operations were cut by $16 million and that's 94-percent people,” Ragan said. “It’s hard to keep morale up when you cut staff and increase the workload.”
DHS policy on child abuse investigations has been in the spotlight since the deaths of teenagers Natalie Finn of West Des Moines and Sabrina Ray of Perry. Both were adopted out of foster care and died under the care of their adoptive parents.
Foxhoven told the Council he wants to reach out to the DHS employees who may be affected by the deaths.
“When you think of the couple tragedies that were in the newspaper, whether anybody’s at fault or not about it, what if you’re the workers assigned to that case, or involved peripherally?” Foxhoven asked.
“We haven't been good about addressing that with the people who work for us and saying what can we do to help you get through this.”