Monday, January 01, 2007

Social workers concerned about personal safety

Social workers want changes
Survey: More staff, improved safety sought
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Dec. 28, 2006, pg. B1.

More social workers, neutral sites where parents can visit children removed from homes and two-way radios for emergencies are some of the changes state social workers want to make their jobs safer.

Those were among the social workers' priorities in a state survey conducted recently in response to the slaying of a Western Kentucky aide Oct. 16.

About 2,700 of the state's 4,550 social-service workers participated in the online survey completed Dec. 12.

Boni Frederick was killed while taking a baby to his mother's Henderson home for a court-ordered visit. Yesterday, her daughter, Sandy Travis, said she supports a neutral site for family visits when children have been removed from homes because of abuse or neglect.

"That's the No. 1 thing with me," said Travis, adding her mother before her death had expressed concern about going alone to some homes.

Tom Emberton Jr., a top state social-services official, said yesterday that his agency already is working to make changes to improve worker safety and will ask lawmakers in the 2007 legislative session for more money for other changes, such as adding workers.

"We will need the help of legislators as we move forward," said Emberton, undersecretary for children and family services at the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Among immediate changes: The state asked Kentucky State Police to review for safety the local offices where families meet with workers and some supervised visits are held.

Emberton said police suggested minor changes that the state can do immediately, such as rearranging furniture to place workers closer to an exit.

In other cases, the state needs to remodel offices to add doors or partitions, or find new offices, he said.

The state also is distributing cell phones to all workers. Previously workers shared cell phones or used their own. Social workers said yesterday they appreciate efforts to make their jobs safer but hope the state provides enough money to do the job right.

"It doesn't do any good to gather information about safety and security if you're not willing to do something about it – really do something about it," said Cynthia Howard, a Jefferson County social worker who investigates abuse and neglect cases.

Lorenzo Bradley, who works with adolescents in the child-welfare system, said he's concerned about the lack of staff and equipment.

"The resources to do the job just basically are not there," he said.

Lawmakers who have been studying the issue say they realize the system is severely underfunded as it faces a growing number of children in state care and increasingly complex cases of abuse and neglect.

State Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, D-Hazard, who helped organize a public forum last month for social workers to air safety concerns, said lawmakers must provide more money.

"We're going to make sure our social workers are safe," said Mongiardo, who with other lawmakers is helping draft legislation (to be called the "Boni Bill" after Frederick) to make changes.

State Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown and chairman of the House human services budget subcommittee, said lawmakers will consider funding recommendations once a bill is filed.

Lee said one priority is a proposal to add 30 secure visitation centers around the state at a cost of about $2 million. Currently, a few small centers exist only in Louisville and Lexington.

"That's a must do," he said.

Lee said lawmakers also will consider adding as many as 300 social workers to keep up with a growing caseload. Some workers are struggling under caseloads of 20 or 25 though national accreditation standards recommend no more than 17 per worker.

The state recently reorganized social services to put more workers in the field and consolidate some operations but that hasn't done enough, Lee and other said.

One top recommendation in the survey was for emergency communications equipment, such as a two-way radio equipped with a "panic button" to notify police in an emergency. Social workers have said many rural areas in Kentucky have no cell phone service and even with service a phone might not help a worker in danger.

Travis said her mother had a cell phone but didn't get a chance to call for help before she was beaten to death. The mother of the 9-month-old baby and her boyfriend are charged with murder and with abducting the boy, who was later found safe and returned to a foster home.

They also are charged with stealing Frederick's car, phone and jewelry.

"Look where my mother's cell phone got her," Travis said. "They took it."


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