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Social worker shortage continues at Mecklenburg DSS

DSS Director Peggy Eagan
DSS Director Peggy Eagan ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County’s Social Services Department continues to grapple with a caseload backlog as the agency searches for ways to recruit and keep social workers.

In December, DSS and its Youth and Family Services struggled with a backlog of 305 cases, down from 638 the previous February. Two weeks ago, the backlog had dropped to about 170, DSS Director Peggy Eagan said Tuesday.

The drop is partly because of extra state money to hire 18 of 24 new social workers, Eagan said.

Yet heavy caseloads persist among a rising number of reported cases and a social worker shortage. The average caseload for Mecklenburg’s social workers investigating family intervention cases continues to hover above the state standard of 10 cases per social worker.

With calls about abused children up, Eagan asked UNC Charlotte’s social work school last year to help find ways to recruit and keep social workers who investigate child abuse and neglect.

She delivered some results of the study Tuesday night to county commissioners.

She told commissioners that the turnover rate for social workers across the state is between 32 and 44 percent – about the range for Mecklenburg.

That’s costly for the county, and discourages “good outcomes” for children and families, she said.

“It takes resources to hire social workers,” Eagan said. “It takes resources to bring them on, orient them and train them. When we lose a social worker, we’ve lost all that’s been invested.”

The UNCC study offered 30 recommendations, including:

▪ Give hiring preference to candidates with social work degrees or those willing to work for a degree as a way to recruit and retain. Offer higher salaries to those with degrees and experience.

Among urban counties, Mecklenburg’s starting salary range is in the middle. She said Buncombe County has the highest starting pay and makes it known that they hire away experienced social workers from other counties with offers of higher pay.

▪ Provide more training and support to supervisors on effective supervision strategies and coaching. Consider including retention rates in a supervisor’s annual job review. The study said that close supervision is critical to keeping social workers just starting out.

▪ Work to maintain North Carolina caseload standards and consider hiring “non-professional” support staff to help with paperwork and administrative tasks.

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