Interim director trying to stabilize DFCS in Muscogee County

Jena Jones, interim county director for the Muscogee County Department of Family and Children Services, stands in a closet filled with clothes and toiletries donated by local churches and other organizations for children served by the agency.
Jena Jones, interim county director for the Muscogee County Department of Family and Children Services, stands in a closet filled with clothes and toiletries donated by local churches and other organizations for children served by the agency. Alva James-Johnson/ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.com

When Jena Jones arrived in Muscogee County as the new interim director for the Department of Family and Children Services, she faced high employee-turnover, an overworked staff and a burgeoning foster care system with more than 500 children.

That was in October when Jones became the latest among several people to head the department in recent years. She replaced Marva Reed, who also served as interim county director before a promotion to regional director, according to Susan Boatwright, communications director for DFCS. Reed was one of about three interim directors/directors to head the department since 2012 when Deborah Cobb, a former acting director, and Phyllis Mitchell, an intake supervisor, were arrested for allegedly falsifying information.

“When I came in October, the leadership team was no longer here,” said Jones, former county director for the DFCS in Crisp and Dooly counties. As for morale, “I’m not going to say it was the greatest. ...I guess it was just the unknown about what was going to take place.”

Since then, Jones has been trying to stabilize the department at a time when local judges and stakeholders are looking for DFCS to help solve the local foster care crisis. Last week, she participated in a foster care forum held in Superior Court Judge Gil McBride’s courtroom, and updated community stakeholders on what the department is doing to address the problem. The steps include hiring additional employees and staff retention.

In an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Juvenile Judge Warner Kennon, who also participated in Friday’s meeting, said the high turnover among staff and directors at the local DFCS office has been a problem in recent years, and he is pleased with the progress that Jones has made stabilizing the department over the past five months. Kennon said he and other judges are meeting to determine how they can assist the department in achieving its goals.

“Ms. Jones has inherited a very difficult situation, for whatever reason, and we’re endeavoring to help her any way we can and she is doing her best,” he said. “Training good folks and getting up to speed and retaining them is worth its weight in gold. I applaud Ms. Jones for all that she’s doing.”

Boatwright said high turnover is a problem throughout the state, with some metro areas having as high as a 50 percent turnover rate. She said the problem in Muscogee County is not unique, but it’s one state officials are trying to address.

“It’s more turnover than is ideal for a county director position and we are currently trying to fill that position,” she said. “Ms. Jones has been doing a great job and as I understand it she is being considered for the permanent role. That’s a priority right now to get someone in there who will make a commitment to the county and can then bring some stability to the county.”

On Monday, Jones sat down for an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer and outlined the steps she has taken so far to stabilize the department. She said the following issues have been addressed:

• Additional Staff. Jones said she has already hired 19 new case managers and four additional supervisors. The new employees are still in training and will soon be handling cases, helping to reduce the case load of other case managers. She said child protective services and foster care case managers had been handling more than 40 to 45 cases when she arrived. Her goal is to get the number down to no more than 15 cases for CPS case managers and no more than 20 for those handling foster care cases. Jones said she is also in the process of hiring three additional administrators and two program directors.

• Overdue Cases. Jones said many cases were overdue because the department lost many employees. Some of the cases were being handled by regional peers. She said the department has closed most of the cases or transitioned them back to Muscogee County.

• After Hour Services. The department is launching an after-hours unit for 24-hour coverage of children in protective services. “Most Class 5 (or larger) counties usually have an after-hours unit because the calls never stop coming,” she said. “We get calls around child abuse and neglect 24 hours a day. We also get disruption calls for kids that are in foster care that may disrupt their placement and need somebody to respond. So our after-hours unit will capture anything after 4 p.m.”

• Staff Retention: Jones said state DFCS leaders asked all large counties to find ways to retain employees. So she asked her team to brainstorm about why people have been leaving and what the department can do to support workers so they will remain. They have developed a program for veteran staff to mentor new employees.

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter