Friday, December 22, 2006

Cutting supervisors - a good or bad idea?

Social workers oppose moving supervisors
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Feb. 21, 2006, pg. A1.

Kentucky social workers are protesting a plan that would reassign child welfare managers in an effort to put more social workers in the field without costing the state more money.

"This is going to put children and families at risk," said Sky Tanghe, a 10-year social worker in Jefferson County.

"This is inevitably going to cost the taxpayers more money, " Tanghe said.

Tanghe was among about 50 social workers who met Saturday with state Rep. Tom Burch, D-Buechel, chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee, to voice their concerns. State Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, said he met with Hardin County social workers yesterday who expressed the same concerns.

Tom Emberton Jr., commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, said his goal is to cut the average caseload to 17 per social worker from 21 four more than recommended by the agency that accredits Kentucky's child welfare system

"Change is uncomfortable," he said. "It may not be the easy thing to do, but it's the right thing."

The state plan reported by The Courier-Journal last week calls for reassigning 153 middle managers as front-line social workers.

The number of social workers would increase from 1,470 to 1,623.

But some workers fear the plan would backfire by cutting help that workers need to investigate child abuse and neglect and also to provide aid to families struggling with poverty, substance abuse and domestic violence.

Caseloads might drop temporarily but would climb as workers struggle to keep up with research, paperwork, court dockets and other work supervisors now help with, they said.

"If you don't have experienced supervisors to back up staff, the cases will be right back up," said Marsha Roberts-Blethen, who supervises about 90 workers, including Tanghe.

Foster parent Cindy Cushman also is concerned.

She said she and her husband, Kerry Rice, have been foster parents for three years and cared for six children, adopting two of them, 4-year-old twins. Cushman said she has seen firsthand the value of caring social workers and the resources their supervisors can provide.

Cushman said she and her husband have cared for a child whose sibling died of abuse and another who lived in a home with no utilities and hadn't eaten in two days before coming to their home.

"We never felt like we were in it alone," Cushman said. "We knew the workers were there and ready to help us."

For many social workers, the plan adds to frustration and anger they say they feel over the Dec. 29 jailing of a Jefferson County social worker. Tricia Mack was jailed for contempt of court after she told a judge the state had nowhere to house a troubled teenage girl. The judge said Mack had acted contemptuously.

Mack, who spent 30 hours in jail, said workers are upset about the effect of the reorganization on the children and parents they serve.

"We feel it would it would be detrimental to our families," she said.

Support for social workers
The reorganization would affect supervisors and "specialists" who assist in specific areas.

Patty Stocker, a retired social worker, works part time as a specialist in Jefferson County family court, helping with paperwork.

Stocker, who is paid about $21,000 a year, said she recently discovered an error in how a youth placed in foster care had been classified. The correction freed up about $20,000 in federal funds for his foster services, she said.

"I bring in way more money than I cost the state," she said.

Roberts-Blethen said some supervisors probably will retire rather than face reassignment to the field.

And Tanghe worries that will make it harder for social workers who rely on experienced supervisors.

"They know me, they know the families, they've heard us talking about these families," Tanghe said.

"They've been allies and advocates for us."

Not enough money
Anita Barbee, a professor in the Kent School of Social Work at the University of Louisville, studies and consults with social service agencies around the country. She said other agencies have tried to get more workers on the front line by cutting supervisors.

"I don't know if it will work here, but it could," she said.

National standards call for workers to carry no more than 15 cases each and a ratio of six to 10 workers per supervisor, she said. Emberton said he couldn't say yet what the ratio of workers to supervisors would be under Kentucky's reorganization.

The main problem is money, Barbee said. "Child welfare is never funded enough," she said. "These are poor children, and Americans don't really care about the poor in general and poor children in particular."

Frankfort hearing
Lee said he wants more information on the reorganization.

"If it's going to disrupt the whole system so it doesn't work, we need to have some answers," said Lee, chairman of the House human resources budget subcommittee, which oversees social service funding.

A regularly scheduled hearing today on funding for human services is expected to draw social workers who plan to protest the reorganization. The hearing is set for 5 p.m. in Room 131 of the Capitol Annex.

Emberton said state officials will consider comments from workers as they implement the plan he expects to have in place by June 16.


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