Revolving door at DCYF: ‘As soon as they hire one new person, two people leave’

  • Demetrios Tsaros in front of his home last week. Tsaros has left DCYF and changed careers after seven years. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/18/2021 5:03:16 PM

After a decade of working as a child protective services worker at the Manchester district office, Demetrios Tsaros could tell when one of his colleagues was about to quit.

They stopped saying good morning as they arrived at the office. They grew dour and quiet. They stifled sobs at their desk as cases continued to pile up.

“I can literally look at people’s faces and their workloads, and I can tell you who’s going to give their notice next,” he said.

He developed the skill over time as teams of colleagues came and then rapidly went. In the last three years alone, 30 child protective services workers left their positions at the Manchester office. The office employs a total of 44 child protection workers.

“The Manchester office is literally, staffing-wise, truly in crisis,” he said.

Turnover is endemic in offices across New Hampshire — in a state that employs a total of 283 child protection workers, 196 have quit or transferred out of their positions since 2019, according to data from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.

The former and current workers interviewed by the Monitor for this story fear the high turnover rate leaves inexperienced, albeit well-intentioned, workers to handle some of the most complicated and high-stakes jobs in the state.

At the Manchester district office, staff left so frequently some workers gave up on learning the new hires’ names.

Shannon Donnelly, who left her position at DCYF in May after more than seven years with the department, said it seemed like management couldn’t hire fast enough to keep up with the steady flow of employees that quit or transferred.

“It’s like a revolving door,” Donnelly said. “As soon as they hire one new person, two people leave.”

When one worker quit, their open cases were redistributed to the remaining employees until they too were at their breaking point and quit, Tsaros said.

To Cameron White, a former Manchester child protection worker, the departures felt bittersweet. In his year and a half at the office, 10 people left.

“When people left, it’s like you’re happy for that person who got out, but also you’re angry at that person because I get all their cases,” he said.

Breaking point

Being a child protective services worker is not glamorous.

Out in the field, they frequently encounter homes infested with bedbugs and lice. Day after day, they witness abuse that can cause secondary trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. If their investigation deems a situation unfit, they are charged with taking children away from distraught — and sometimes violent — parents.

That is often the explanation spokespeople for the department give when prodded to explain high turnover rates.

As people came and went, staff heard the same explanation over and over again from management: This is a tough job that is not meant for everyone. Turnover is a natural casualty of a difficult profession, they said.

All of the workers interviewed for this article disagreed with this explanation, however.

They said it was the overwhelming caseloads, seemingly impossible expectations and poor management.

“The majority of my coworkers didn’t leave because they didn’t like the job or they didn’t like the clients. It was the toxic work environment,” Tsaros said.

Leading up to the pandemic, workers often juggled more than 30 cases at a time. The Child Welfare League of America, a non-profit governmental organization based in Washington, D.C., recommends a maximum of 12 cases at a time.

“I never saw a place where I would on such a regular basis see people crying,” Tsaros said. “Just because they’re so overwhelmed with all the work they’re being asked to do.”

During 2020, caseloads plummeted as fewer reports of neglect and abuse were called in (likely because students didn’t attend in-person classes where signs of abuse might be noticed and reported). However, Joe Ribsam, the director of the Division for Children Youth and Families, said that even as calls have crept back up to pre-pandemic levels, average caseloads remained lower than in years past, which he attributes to delegating some of the incoming calls to Family Resource Centers, hiring more staff and new weekly staff meetings.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see a climb back up around 20, but I really hope we’re able to maintain under that,” he said.

Amber Bennett, a former Manchester child protection worker, said when she left her position in the spring of 2019 she was working on cases for more than 200 children. She said she worked between 70 and 80 hours a week to keep up with her workload while caring for her own newborn.

“I even made a comment, and I was like, ‘I am telling you I cannot handle one more thing, otherwise all of these are going to be neglected, and I don’t want to do that,’ ” she said.

Bennett said her supervisors put more cases on her desk chair after she left for the day anyway.

Other workers received similar responses to their concerns.

When Shauna Smith, a former Manchester child protection worker of 13 years, told her supervisors that one of her clients attempted to blackmail her through her teenage son’s Facebook page, she said they told her the situation was a perceived threat, not an actual threat.

“That’s why I’m not on Facebook,” she remembered another supervisor responding.

Ribsam said he would “look closer into what those individual allegations are” but noted that supervisors have often lived through the same traumatizing experiences that workers have.

“It’s incredibly taxing work on not just the individual staff but also on the folks who are in those supervisory roles,” he said. “I don’t think we have any supervisors who are intentionally indifferent to some of the struggles that folks bring up.”

Tsaros’ breaking point came last winter during the height of the pandemic when he and his colleagues were expected to regularly visit hospitals and homes to conduct their investigations.

These employees, unlike so many other frontline workers required to do in-person work, were not prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine. Some workers were not just afraid for their own safety but for the safety of the children they worked with, one describing themselves as a “perfect disease vector.”

Jake Leon, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, said he could not disclose how many child protection workers tested positive for the virus due to privacy reasons.

To Tsaros, this solidified what he had suspected for a long time: The system thought of him as dispensable.

“(We) get treated like beater cars,” he said. “I’ll just get this car, I’ll just run it for a couple of years ’til it goes kaput and then I’ll get another beater.”

Experience lost

Before his colleagues put in their notice, they sometimes asked Tsaros how he managed to stay at the office for so many years.

At first, he answered with platitudes about how fulfillment from his personal life gave him the strength to keep working. Over time, that explanation started to feel insincere.

“Why am I doing this?” he asked himself.

Last week, Tsaros — the office’s most experienced assessment worker by about seven years — left his job at the Division for Children, Youth and Families for a position with the U.S. Postal Service.

While he said he’s happy to be moving on, he worries about the office he is leaving behind.

Many of the remaining assessment workers are fresh out of college with less than two years of experience on the job. There are so few experienced workers left, those with less than one year of experience were training new employees, multiple former and current employees confirmed. Ribsam said though this is true, supervisors selected mentors who had prior experience in adjacent fields.

He also said that all child protection employees go through a core training academy taught by professional trainers before they are assigned a mentor in their office.

That’s not good enough, others said.

“There’s no seasoned experienced staff to mentor these new young workers,” Smith said. “Those inexperienced workers may not know about the resources available. Because they’re exhausted, they may be missing important pieces to an investigation that otherwise, if they had been well-rested and well-trained, they wouldn’t have missed. Missing some of those red flags could mean that a child gets hurt or a child dies.”

Tsaros is the first to admit that he didn’t get a handle on the job until about two years at the agency.

Over time, he developed an eye for the small details that might indicate an unsafe environment — a hole in the drywall, a small dent in the fridge, fleeting facial expressions.

Moira O’Neill from the Office of the Child Advocate said she worries about the years of experience that are lost when tens of people quit every year.

The people who remain, though trained and well-intentioned, are inexperienced and may miss signs of abuse veteran workers might notice.

“Not only are they not really seasoned to work, they’re not even seasoned to life,” she said. “They’re walking onto the porches of the most complicated families. You have to have many levels of experience to deal with that.”


Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.



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