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Utah lawmakers call for ‘culture shift,’ budget increase for state’s child welfare system

Jan 9, 2023, 10:49 PM | Updated: Jan 10, 2023, 11:03 am

SALT LAKE CITY –- Mia Chase wanted to help. That’s why she became an advocate for kids inside Utah’s child welfare system.

“It took its toll on me emotionally,” she told the KSL Investigators. Last year, she made the difficult decision to step away from her role as a volunteer with Utah Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA.)

She said she witnessed too much dysfunction in how Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services operates.

The final straw, according to Chase, was seeing inaccurate reports submitted to the courts.

“That’s kind of when I started thinking, ‘You know, this is probably not where I need to be serving. I need to find another way to serve little kids,’” Chase recalled. “I don’t want to be a part of something that’s not working the right way.”

Mia Chase, former CASA volunteer. (KSL-TV)

But Chase didn’t stay silent. She approached her representative in the Utah legislature to share her concerns about a system she believes is broken.

“The kids that I worked with have suffered a lot inside the system,” Chase said. “I don’t know that it’s worse or better than the home they came from, and that’s not fair. If you’re taking someone’s children because they’re not doing a good enough job or their children are in harm, you better do a better job.”

“I think that is the worst type of government consequence that we don’t want to have to happen, that because she was so proactive because she was such a great advocate, she was pushed out of the system,” said Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman.

Pierucci, having heard from Chase and other constituents with concerns, teamed up with Rep. Kera Birkeland over the summer to explore solutions.

“We owe so much more to these vulnerable children,” said Birkeland, R-Morgan.

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, (left) and Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman (right). (KSL-TV)

Birkeland and Pierucci are calling for systemic changes within DCFS, including a shift in the department’s culture. Birkeland is speaking from her own experience serving as a foster parent in Utah.

She told the KSL Investigators she too had to eventually step away, feeling unsupported by DCFS as she tried to make a difference.

“It wasn’t the kids that were hard,” Birkeland recalled. “It wasn’t even the biological parents who were struggling to care for the kids that were hard. It was the system.”

The KSL Investigators frequently hear from parents and foster families involved in difficult child welfare and family court cases who are experiencing concerns.

“If this is happening to us, who else could it be happening to?” Kevin Leary questioned in June.

Leary contacted the KSL Investigators after finding DCFS reports filed in their family court case were riddled with inaccuracies.

Kalie Jones and Nicholas Hulse called the KSL Investigators last summer too. They believe DCFS relied on faulty drug test results to keep them from their kids.

Kalie Jones and Nicholas Hulse. (KSL-TV)

These parents and several others told KSL they fear raising concerns will lead to retaliation.

“I think if you’re noisy, yeah, that’s a problem,” Chase explained.

“I’ve heard many of those same things from constituents,” Birkeland added. “I have felt some of those same things as a foster parent.”

During an interview in August, DCFS Strengthening Families Program Administrator Kyla Clark told KSL, “We don’t condone retaliation and we definitely would want to look into any of those concerns.”

In addition to addressing the culture within DCFS, both Birkeland and Pierucci also see addressing an ongoing turnover crisis among caseworkers as a top priority.

“They are just overworked and underpaid,” Birkeland explained. “But unfortunately, if we’re not correcting that problem and providing the best resources, we’re going to continue to see people saying, ‘I’m here for the kids, but I can’t work in a system that isn’t really there for the kids at the end of the day.’”

The state increased starting pay for caseworkers to $20 per hour last year. A DCFS spokesperson told KSL more than 94% of its frontline staff – which includes caseworkers – were impacted by that raise.

Currently, DCFS has vacant positions in every region in the state, and as of December, more than half of caseworkers employed by DCFS had less than three years of experience.

“When you can go to Taco Bell and make $18 an hour, or you know, Chick-fil-A and make $16 an hour and get scholarships, what would make you want to stay in such a high-stress, high-intense job, right?” Pierucci expressed.

She said she is considering pushing for a pay increase for caseworkers during the upcoming legislative session, “while also acknowledging throwing money at a problem isn’t always the solution. And if there are issues within a system, we need to work that out.”

DCFS denied multiple requests from the KSL Investigators for an on-camera interview.

Instead, the agency released a statement saying;

DCFS recognizes the often complex circumstances that bring our agency into the lives of children and families, and the high standards of confidentiality, ethics and empathy this work requires. We believe in a system of continuous quality improvement and are constantly striving to provide safety and wellbeing for children in Utah. We welcome the opportunity to hear from and partner with state leadership and legislators in our important work of safe children and strengthened families.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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Utah lawmakers call for ‘culture shift,’ budget increase for state’s child welfare system