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RACINE — At the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility they have struggled to fill social worker positions. And at Racine County Jail, social workers are not staying as long as they used to.

It’s all part of a common theme: a shortage of social workers in the public sector. It’s not a new problem, but it’s one that appears to be getting worse.

At a Racine Area Community Relations Board meeting earlier this month, representatives from the county’s correctional institutions updated community members on what’s going on in their facility.

The audience at the meeting on Oct. 12 consisted of leaders from churches, transitional homes, veterans’ organizations, and libraries — organizations that worked with either current or former inmates and had a vested interest in the corrections system.

As Je’Leslie Taylor, the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility’s new deputy warden, went through her update, she mentioned the institution was short on social workers, so some of the programs for inmates regarding anger management and domestic violence had to be put on hold.

A community member asked why the facility was short on social workers. RYOCF Warden Pamela Wallace said the public sector has not kept up with the private sector in terms of social worker compensation.

“I’ve had applicants say, ‘If you can’t pay me X, don’t interview me,’ ” Wallace laughed. “I can’t pay you that.”

Racine Correctional Institution Warden Paul Kemper pointed out that in addition to lower salaries, prison social workers have to work with an especially challenging population.

“We’re a losing proposition,” said Kemper.

County weighs in

Racine County Human Services Director Hope Otto said the comparison between public and private sector jobs isn’t exactly “apples to apples.”

The requirements are not the same in the two sectors. Most private social worker positions in Racine are in the health care industry, which requires them to be licensed so they can process Medicaid/Medicare claims. The county does not require such licensure.

“Private businesses require that licensure for billing purposes, so they’re willing to pay to compensate,” said the county’s Youth and Family Division manager Kerry Milkie.

While the salaries from the county may be lower, there are other forms of compensation, Milkie said.

“From a benefits standpoint, the county is as competitive as it can be,” said Milkie. “But I think if you’re looking at it from a salary standpoint, government cannot match the salary from the private sector.”

Social worker shortages aren’t new, but the issue has become exacerbated as the Baby Boom generation retires.

“We saw a little bit of a retirement surge in the past five to 10 years,” said Otto. “So now we have a greener staff and a younger staff.”

Otto said that on average, her younger workers aren’t staying on as long. Milkie said that the average tenure of a social worker used to be about five years. Now it’s down to 3½.

“It’s stereotypical to say younger workers change jobs more often,” Otto said. “But we’re seeing that trend.”

Aside from compensation, Milkie said the real issue is the pressure and emotional toll the position can take.

“Particularly in Child Protective Services, the work is difficult. It’s emotionally draining. It requires one to take good care of oneself,” said Milkie. “So when you’re ending up short-staffed in those areas, it adds more pressure to staff, which can result in additional turnover if you’re not watchful of that process.”

It doesn’t help that more children are entering Child Services and foster care because of the opioid epidemic.

Lightening the load

Milkie and Otto decided the best way to address the issue would be to get ahead of it — six months ago, they submitted a proposal to County Executive Jonathan Delagrave that places more of an emphasis on preventative services, such as home visits for new parents and safety services for families with older children.

“The goal is to prevent the number of people entering the system in the first place, which will reduce the caseload,” said Milkie.

In addition to reducing the stress on social workers, they’re hoping the program will lead to better outcomes for youth.

“We know that’s the best outcome for children, if it’s possible, to preserve the family structure,” said Otto. “The outcomes are so much better when children are able to stay with their family and community.”

The County Board approved the measure four months ago. Milkie said they’ve just about wrapped up hiring for those positions.

“So all those services should be fully functioning by mid-November,” she said. “And we should really be rocking and rolling by the 1st of January.”

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Christina Lieffring covers the Burlington area and the Village of Caledonia. Before moving to Racine, she lived in Nebraska, Beijing, Chicago and grew up in Kansas City.

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