By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver
(Denver, Colo.) Caseworkers and others in the child welfare office of Denver Human Services lack the training necessary to best manage its kinship care program, the Denver Auditor’s Office concluded.
The kinship care program germinated from a federal push to put children taken from their parents into the housing of friends or relatives first. The idea is to ease the trauma associated with a child being removed from their home and placed into traditional foster care or group homes.
“Caseworkers and other staff in Denver Human Services’ Child Welfare Division do not have consistent training or clear procedures for certifying kinship caregivers,” according to the website of Denver Auditor Tim O’Brien. “Because of this, child welfare managers cannot ensure these staff members have the knowledge and tools they need to best serve both the local children removed from their homes and their new caregivers.”
Emergency fund needs better management
The auditor’s office examined data spanning from January 2018 to June 30, 2022 to arrive at its conclusions, according to a presentation at the March 16 Audit Committee meeting. The auditor’s office also examined expenditures from the IMPREST fund, which is used by caseworkers to give caregivers money for emergencies. The fund must maintain a balance of $80,000. But the auditor found there are few other policies for managing the fund.
From 2019 to 2021, DHS spent $1.2 million from the fund. Of that, $590,000 went to child welfare purposes. The money is used for everything from car seats to rental payments, according to the Auditor’s Office.
“Denver Human Services’ procedures for its IMPREST account are missing important components referenced in city fiscal rules,” according to the auditor’s website. “And because the fiscal rule for petty cash accounts no longer mentions IMPREST funds by name, staff within Denver Human Services are unsure what guidance still applies to the agency’s fund.
“Additionally, limited documented guidance for how to maintain and secure the agency’s fund could impact how staff review and approve expenses, keep checks secure, and resolve recordkeeping issues.”
During the committee meeting, Justin Sykes of DHS said staff reconciles the fund each month and rigorously reviews documentation to make sure the money is properly spent.
Better training for caregivers needed
Caregivers become certified through an arduous process involving training, background checks and paperwork. Certified caregivers on average receive $1,200 per child. Uncertified caregivers receive nothing but can qualify for programs like foods stamps.
Regarding training case managers to administer the kinship care program, the auditor’s office found:
- “The agency has no written guidance outlining policy or requirements for training certification staff.
- “Training logs of three certification team members revealed inconsistencies in the types of training they took.
- “The agency’s procedures for certifying kinship caregivers are only in draft form.
- “Checklists and other tools certification staff use lack some details and are inconsistent.”
Caregivers need more support
Audit Manager Emily Owens Gerber said most kinship caregivers aren’t receiving the $1,200 per month average stipend. “Those who need it most face the most barriers.”
Of 1,400 kinship caregivers, about half went through a needs assessment. Of those, most needed moderate to large amounts of assistance, but between 77 and 88 percent were not receiving certified caregiver support, Gerber said. She said the department should lobby the state and federal governments to loosen restrictions for becoming a certified caregiver or identify other funding sources.
“Managers in the Child Welfare Division’s placement services group should develop and document current guidance on the kinship caregiver certification process that accurately describes all required steps, who is responsible for those steps and for updating the procedures, and how often the procedures should be reviewed and updated,” the website reports. “In addition, the procedures should include an effective date.”
Formal training programs needed
The Auditor’s Office recommended DHS create formal training programs, including for caseworkers who certify caregivers. The office said the plan should include, at minimum:
- “A list of the types of training required and how often each training should be taken after an employee is hired (for example, only one time versus once each year).
- “A description of how the division will track and document training.
- “How often the training plan should be reviewed and updated.
- “How the division will develop and use individual training plans to ensure a focused approach to staff training and development.”
Keeping caseworkers content
The Auditor’s Office also recommended to DHS creating retention programs for caseworkers, where turnover is high. The programs should "list strategies for improving caseworker and support staff retention using best practices from leading child welfare organizations and the city." Other suggestions include:
- “Describing the division’s assessment of potential caseworker and support staff retention strategies and which it will use.
- “Documenting the individuals responsible for regularly reviewing and updating the retention plan and how often this should happen.
Roadblocks getting state data
In a letter accompanying the audit, O’Brien said DHS agreed to all recommendations for improvement. However, he added, “our ability to audit was delayed by insufficient initial access to child welfare records…. This should not have occurred.”
Despite problems the auditor’s office faced, O’Brien believes DHS can shore up its practices and provide better services.
“By implementing recommendations for stronger training practices and for complete, updated procedures, Denver Human Services’ Child Welfare Division will better equip caseworkers and support staff with the information and tools they need to fully support kinship caregivers,” O’Brien wrote in the letter. “Additionally, more robust procedures for the IMPREST fund will improve the ability of Denver Human Services’ Financial Services Division to ensure the money is being used as intended.”
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