Friday, December 22, 2006

Making decisions in a vacuum can alienate frontline staff

State won't reassign social work managers
Officials will ask workers for ideas
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Feb. 24, 2006, pg. A1.

FRANKFORT, Ky. Pressure from social workers and lawmakers forced state officials to retreat yesterday from their plan to boost the number of social workers by reassigning managers and administrators.

Without new money to hire social workers, officials had said they had little choice but to pull from the ranks of supervisors.

But now they said they plan to meet with social workers to get their views on how to reduce Kentucky's growing child -abuse and neglect caseloads and better serve families in crisis.

"We are committed to listening to the staff," said Tom Emberton Jr., commissioner of the state's child welfare system.

Social workers said they were pleased with the new approach, but that more money is needed to care for the ever-growing number of children taken from their homes and placed under state supervision.

"I think that's a good idea as long as they are sincere and open and willing to listen to us," said Tricia Mack, a Jefferson County social worker.

"Things work pretty well, but they could work even better if we had more social workers and more money for our families," said Jessica Causey, another Jefferson County social worker.

The original plan to transfer more office staff into the field drew fire from workers and some lawmakers who said it would strip social workers of the experience and advice of supervisors.

Though officials still want to get more social workers in the field, Emberton said, officials will consult with workers on how to do so.

The goal is to reduce the average caseload per worker from 21 to 17 the level recommended by the agency that accredits Kentucky's child welfare system.

Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, chairman of the House human services budget subcommittee, applauded the decision.

"That's what should have been done to start with," said Lee, who chaired a hearing Tuesday attended by about 45 social workers and others to protest the reorganization plan.

Emberton and Eugene Foster, an undersecretary with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, attended the hearing at which social workers, foster parents and other spoke against the plan, saying it would hurt services.

In addition to cutting managers, the state proposed consolidating 16 service regions into four something that critics said would make regions too big and impossible to manage.

Foster said officials got the message that they need to talk to employees about any changes.

"We didn't communicate that well before and we want to communicate better," he said.

Charles Wells, executive director of the Kentucky Association of State Employees, met yesterday with state officials, who briefed him on the new approach.

"We told them if they came up with a plan that would make our social workers happy, we would buy into it," said Wells, whose association represents about 1,500 social workers.

Foster said his goal still is to reduce the average caseload to 17. And he said he hopes to implement a plan by June 16, although that deadline is not absolute.

"It's about getting it right, not getting it done by a certain date," he said.

Foster said he doesn't believe accreditation will be jeopardized if caseloads aren't reduced immediately. The private Council on Accreditation, based in New York, has indicated it is flexible and willing to work with the state as long as it shows it is working to improve services, he said.

"To me this has never been about accreditation," he said.

Cindy Cushman, a foster parent from Jefferson County, said what Kentucky's child welfare system most needs is more money.

"There are more and more kids going into the system," Cushman said. "You can't add more kids without adding money."

Gov. Ernie Fletcher proposed no new money to hire workers in his budget, although he has proposed nearly $30 million over the next two years to help pay for the growing number of children in foster care and other placements, such as residential centers.

Foster has said he doesn't expect to ask for additional money for social workers. He said yesterday he still hopes to come up with a plan within the department's existing resources.

Some workers say they are not opposed to reorganization and are willing to consider ways to operate more efficiently.

But they said officials need to remember they must supervise more than 7,000 children in the state's care, a job that includes frequent court appearances, and work to either reunite children with their families or terminate parents' rights and place the children for adoption.

"A lot of us feel they don't understand the complications our jobs entail," Mack said.


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