When Shannon Lindsey moved from Missouri to Kansas two years ago, she decided she wanted to go to Johnson County Community College to get a nursing degree that would make her more employable.
Lindsey, now 49, has several disabilities, so she contacted Kansas’ vocational rehabilitation office for assistance. In Missouri she had the same vocational rehabilitation counselor for years — a state worker who understood her needs, what was available to help her and how to get it to her quickly.
In Kansas, her experience with the counselors has been far different.
“They come and go like you change underwear,” Lindsey said.
Lindsey is in her third semester at JCCC and on her sixth vocational rehabilitation counselor, a symptom of a regional office experiencing unusual turnover.
According to the Kansas Department for Children and Families, which oversees the vocational rehabilitation program, five of the seven counselors in the Johnson County office have been on the job six months or less. A sixth has just under a year of experience. The longest-tenured counselor has about two years of experience.
That makes Johnson County an outlier statewide, where the average tenure of the 67 counselors is almost 10 years.
DCF spokeswoman Theresa Freed said the Johnson County office has seen “several individuals with decades of experience” retire in recent years, but it’s now almost fully staffed.
She said the new counselors are well-qualified and supervised.
“(Vocational rehabilitation) counselors have master’s-level education,” Freed said in an email. “Staff members in Johnson County also receive continued training on a monthly basis and work under program administrators and supervisors with extensive experience in the area of Vocational Rehabilitation.”
Forgoing federal funding
Still, the turnover has consequences for Kansans with disabilities in the state’s most populous county, and it comes in the wake of last year’s decision to turn down $15 million in federal funding for the vocational rehabilitation program.
Mike Donnelly, a DCF official who runs the program, said at the time that the federal money wasn’t needed because fewer Kansans were using vocational rehab services and it didn’t make sense for the state to put up the $3.5 million match to get the federal dollars.
But Lindsey said she was furious when she read about the returned money. Fewer Kansans with disabilities are accessing services because of the lack of continuity with their counselors, she said, not because they don’t need the services.
Lindsey tried to rattle off the names of her six counselors but couldn’t recall one because she said the woman was on the job for such a short time that they never actually talked.
By the time one counselor had become familiar with what Lindsey needed, she often was on to the next one and had to explain her case again. That meant delays in getting assistive devices, like eyeglasses and a digital pen to help take class notes.
The current semester was particularly rough, she said — so rough that she decided to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education.
“I finally got everything I needed … but the semester is almost over,” Lindsey said last week. “It was at least two months into the semester until I got everything.”
A key county for services
Counselor caseloads are slightly higher than average in Johnson County — about 89 open cases per counselor as compared to about 82 statewide.
It’s a key county for vocational rehabilitation, beyond just being the state’s most populous.
The Kansas School for the Deaf, a public school that serves students age 3 to 21 from across the state who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, is in Olathe.
Students and staff at the school frequently use vocational rehabilitation services to transition to jobs or academic opportunities in their communities.
Michele Golden, an administrative assistant at the school who is hearing impaired, said she had been trying to access services as she attends culinary school at the Art Institutes International in Lenexa.
Like Lindsey, she found the vocational rehabilitation process frustrating. She ultimately decided it was more hassle than it’s worth.
“I had awful experiences for the last four and a half years,” Golden said through an interpreter. “I finally closed my case.”
Golden said she worked with four counselors during that period before officially abandoning her request for services about two months ago.
“It just was not a smooth ride,” she said.
Golden said she ended up paying for assistive devices out of pocket, incurring more student loan debt.
Lindsey said she also had paid for some supplies after a vocational rehabilitation counselor told her she would be reimbursed. By the time she submitted the receipts, that counselor was gone and she never was repaid.
Though Lindsey has stuck with vocational rehabilitation, she said she could understand why others, like Golden, drop out.
“It’s been just a fight,” Lindsey said. “It’s been a big, old fight. I have spent hours and hours and hours on the phone that I should have been able to use to study.”
Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @andymarso