Kentucky reverses loss of social workers in child and adult protective services

by Sarah Ladd, Kentucky Lantern

FRANKFORT – Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander is “cautiously optimistic” as caseload-carrying social workers in the Department for Community Based Services increased this year.  Eric Friedlander

In December, Kentucky had 965 workers in adult and child protective services work, which increased to 1,023 in March and 1,042 in May. 

This increase comes as the cabinet is focused on retention, Friedlander and DCBS Acting Commissioner Lesa Dennis told the Interim Joint Budget Review Subcommittee on Health and Human Services Wednesday. 

From 2017 to last summer, Friedlander told legislators, the cabinet lost social workers every month. 

Social workers undergo many challenges, Dennis and Friedlander told the committee. Those include experiencing vicarious trauma, secondary post traumatic stress and going into high-risk situations. 

Recent retention efforts include a $5 per hour pay premium for those responding to abuse and other crises after hours. 

“This is an opportunity to recognize that work and support it differently for after hours, weekends and holiday work,” Dennis said. 

Also new is discretionary leave for those who’ve undergone trauma at work. Friendlander gave the example of a social worker who had a gun put to their head on a call. 

“Our response at that point, because we didn’t have this leave, was like, ‘Sorry about that. Come back to work.’ That doesn’t help with staff retention at all,” he said. “Being able to acknowledge that trauma that folks see out there, and giving them some time to breathe is really important.” 

In July, state workers will see a 6% raise in pay. Before December 2021, Friendlander said, an entry level social worker made about $34,000 annually — a figure that is now closer to $51,000. 

“We had folks serving in important positions that were eligible for our services,” he said. “And really, that shouldn’t be. And so we’re working hard to get folks out of that range of salaries. It’s ongoing work.” 

During the 2023 legislative session, Senate Bill 229 passed and was signed by Gov. Andy Beshear. It’s aimed at closing gaps in Kentucky’s child abuse reporting system, including allowing DCBS discretion to make unannounced home visits when abuse is alleged. 

Kentucky reported a decrease in child victims of abuse and neglect in 2021. Even with the improvement, there were still nearly 15,000 child victims. That’s down from 2020 (16,748), 2019 (20,130) and 2018 (23,752).

If you suspect child abuse, you can call Kentucky’s Child Abuse Hotline at 877-597-2331 or report online at between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time between Monday through Friday. 

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