Friday, December 22, 2006

'Streamlining' social services won't solve the problem of underfunding

Kentucky General Assembly: State will add social workers
153 administrators will investigate abuse, neglect
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Feb. 14, 2006, pg. A1.

FRANKFORT, Ky. Facing a rising demand for social workers and no new money, the state is transferring 153 administrators into the field to investigate abuse and neglect of children.

The change announced yesterday is aimed at reducing average caseloads to 17 per worker from about 21, which is four more than recommended by the agency that accredits Kentucky's child welfare program.

After the reorganization is phased in over the next four months, the total number of social workers would rise to 1,623, said Tom Emberton Jr., commissioner of the state's Department for Community Based Services.

"No one will lose a job. No one will take a pay cut," Emberton said in an interview after testifying before the House budget subcommittee on human services. "Our ultimate goal is to strengthen our front line."

All moves will be voluntary, he said. If there aren't enough volunteers, the department will reclassify jobs as they become vacant, he said.

To try to cut administration and standardize operations, the department will merge its 16 regional offices into four.

Some social workers were skeptical about whether the changes would help.

Angela Simmons, a state social worker in Jefferson County, said the reorganization would affect morale because it reduces opportunities for advancement.

"You're going to get burned out doing casework," she said in an interview. "The stress of that will get to you after a while."

Simmons said she enjoys her work but earned a master's degree in social work from Spalding University in hopes of becoming a supervisor someday.

Patricia Pregliasco, also a social worker in Jefferson County, said she and some co-workers aren't convinced the reorganization will help with growing caseloads and other problems, such as high turnover and outdated equipment.

"We'll believe it when we see it," she said in an interview.

Emberton told lawmakers the goal is to improve support and maintain supervision for social workers by streamlining the agency.

Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, who is chairman of the budget subcommittee, said afterward he understands why the department is making the change.

"It's another way of providing extra workers without having any money to hire them," he said.

But Lee said he doubts many agency workers will like it, and he's still pressing for more funding for social services.

"It's been underfunded for years," he said.

Money woes
Gov. Ernie Fletcher proposed adding $29.4 million to the department over the next two years to help pay for the care of the growing number of children removed from homes because of abuse or neglect.

Emberton said that amount would make Kentucky eligible for $59 million more in federal funds to help pay for placements such as foster homes or residential centers.

The department's budget for basic child protective services is about $186 million in the current budget year.

The shortage in placements was highlighted earlier this year when a Jefferson County social worker was jailed for contempt of court after telling a judge the department had nowhere to house a troubled teenage girl.

The state now supervises the care of more than 7,300 children, a number that has been rising steadily in recent years. Officials blame poverty and increased substance abuse for the increase.

Most children have been removed from their homes for abuse or neglect and placed with relatives or in foster or other residential care.

However, the rest of the agency would not get an increase under Fletcher's proposed budget, Emberton said. That follows several years of budget cuts that eliminated about $81 million from the department, he said.

'That's a good idea'
Debra Miller, with Kentucky Youth Advocates, said she believes the changes announced yesterday could address some concerns mentioned in a recent report on the state's child welfare system.

The report cited a growing caseload and inconsistent decisions from the 16 regions on issues such as removing children from homes, or placing them in foster care or for adoption.

"If it really does get more folks into front -line jobs providing more direct services to kids, that's a good idea," Miller said.

And Miller said combining 16 regions into four might bring more consistent decisions.

But she said the agency still needs more resources. "I think we could use more money," she said.

Emberton and his boss, Eugene Foster, undersecretary for families and children in the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said they are prepared to work within the governor's proposed budget.

They also proposed upgrading decades-old computer technology and furnishing social workers with a laptop computer, digital camera and cell phone to help them record information and work cases more efficiently.

"We're looking at what we have and how to improve on it," Foster said.

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