03/03/08 — Statistics offer new look at progress in county

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Statistics offer new look at progress in county

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 3, 2008 1:45 PM

More children are entering foster care for the first time in Wayne County, but none are re-entering the system within a year of leaving and more are staying with their parents, county social services officials recently announced.

The statistics were among several benchmarks reported by the Wayne County Department of Social Services.

Focusing on four overarching themes -- the health, safety and well-being of children, adults and families; helping people obtain the basic necessities of life; providing the highest level of social and economic self-sufficiency; and creating an efficient and effective organization -- there are 20 indicators.

Of those, the department passed nine with flying colors, is waiting on the results for four, and either missed or found that it needs to revamp the other seven.

Among its success stories, the department was able to reduce the number of foster care children re-entering the system within 12 months from 11.76 percent to zero, shattering its goal of a 3 percent reduction.

It also jumped from 68.42 percent of foster children reunited with their parents within a year of their removal, to 80 percent; increased the number of adoptions from 23 to 40; and kept the number of recurrences of maltreatment of children who were victims of substantiated child abuse under the state average of 3.91 percent.

Other successes included a 3.9 percent increase in child support collections, a 3.12 percent increase in the number of eligible people receiving food stamps, and a 9.6 percent increase in the number of eligible people receiving Medicaid.

Measures that were not met, however, included the reduction in the number of children entering DSS foster care for the first time -- though county DSS Director Judy Pelt emphasized that they were not going to turn people away just to meet a benchmark.

"We don't assume custody of a child unless it's absolutely necessary for their safety," she said.

Others benchmarks not met included decreases in employee turnover and the maintenance of state and federal dollars drawn down by Wayne County -- two issues that are somewhat intertwined, Ms. Pelt explained.

Though multiple factors play into employees' decisions to leave -- location and quality of life being two -- a large problem with retention often comes down to salary.

"We're not competitive," Ms. Pelt said. "And if we're recruiting people, but not retaining them, what's the point in recruiting them?"

That's why, she continued, they're putting an extra focus on retention efforts this year -- even though they know the department is "always going to have an issue of turnover."

"People just aren't coming here with the mindset they'll be here for 30 years and retire here," Ms. Pelt said.

But, DSS Board Chairwoman Linda Jones added, it's important they try to improve that retention rate.

"Unless we can bring this indicator up to par, it's going to affect all the other indicators. This is a very important indicator," she said.

The problem, Ms. Pelt explained, is that employee turnover can make it harder to meet the other benchmarks, simply because there either are not enough people to process all the cases, or because of the time it takes to train those who are in place.

It's an issue, she continued, that was especially apparent last year in terms of the loss of state and federal dollars.

Some benchmarks, though, were found to be unmeasurable in their current forms, including the constantly fluctuating number of children on the subsidized child care waiting list and the small number of 18- and 19-year-old teen parents eligible to earn their GEDs through the WorkFirst program.

And still the results of others are pending the collection of more data, including those following the number of children in high-quality day care (three stars or higher), the number of adult care homes with substantiated allegations of abuse, the collection rate of the department's program integrity initiative and the results of a customer survey.

Now, though, the board is looking toward the rest of 2008 and what needs to be done to meet its new indicators -- all of which are either calling for the maintenance of 2007's progress or another step forward.

"I think they're all achievable," Ms. Pelt said. "We tried not to set ourselves up for failure."

But whether all the goals are met or not, Ms. Jones said that she believes they're helping to improve the department.

"Leading by results tells us what we're doing, where we need to be and where we want to be, but it also tells Wayne County what's going on," Ms. Jones said.

"We're more mission-driven," Ms. Pelt added. "One of the things we wanted to do was look at outcomes instead of processes. We want to be outcome-driven.

"And considering the challenges this year with turnover and federal and state audits, I think we've done an excellent job and the staff needs to be commended. I'm real comfortable where we are."