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'Stressed, depleted, traumatized': Kentucky struggling to keep social workers

KY LRC Committee Meeting

Kentucky is losing social workers at an alarming rate, according to the Department of Community-Based Services. A number of factors are being blamed.

More than 600 DCBS staff members have exited the ranks this year, and the turnover rate is only speeding up. Departures jumped more than 60% over the last three months as compared with the first five months of 2021.

Some causes of the high turnover, according to officials: overwhelming caseloads, low pay, retirements, and more attractive job opportunities outside of state government. Deputy DCBS commissioner Lisa Dennis also pointed to the disruptions brought on by the pandemic.

"What we are seeing now is that COVID has changed our workforce in ways that we don't fully understand yet," she testified to lawmakers. "The workforce within DCBS is stressed, depleted, traumatized, and our staff are making different choices." 

While the department hopes increased work flexibility, more use of virtual options, and a reduced brick and mortar presence may ease some pressures on the system, officials say getting at the root of the problems will take more money.

But some lawmakers wondered aloud whether there aren’t more efficient ways to utilize resources.

"This is an ongoing problem, and I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. I keep waking up and seeing the same old problem without finding a solution," Rep. Ken Fleming said. "I'm getting rather concerned that there are children out there who aren't being taken care of." 

Lawmakers will revisit the funding question when they return next year to hash out a budget.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.