Thursday, February 01, 2007

Adding up to 220 social workers and providing safety equipment would help

Better safety sought for social workers
Bill would also boost numbers
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 27, 2007, pg. A1.

Adding as many as 220 social workers, safety equipment such as radios with "panic buttons" and secure centers where parents can visit children in state custody are among major changes proposed for Kentucky's child welfare system in this year's legislative session.

The changes could cost as much as $20 million. Many were prompted by the murder last fall of a state social-service aide who was beaten to death after she took a baby to the mother's home for a court-ordered visit.

An upgrade of the state's overloaded and underfunded social-service system is overdue, said Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, chairman of the House human-services budget subcommittee.

"It's unfortunate that the impetus behind doing it is someone being killed," Lee said.

Lee said the source of the proposed $20 million in changes hasn't been specified, but it could come from extra state revenue anticipated this year.

The bill will be called the "Boni Bill" after Boni Frederick, the worker slain Oct. 16 in Henderson when she took the baby for a last visit with the mother, whose rights were being terminated for neglect. The baby's mother and her boyfriend have been charged with the murder.

A key goal is to get more social workers into the field — which the state tried to accomplish last year through reorganization. That hasn't worked, and Lee said hiring more workers is essential.

"It's imperative that we put more workers out there," he said.

Louisville social worker Lorenzo Bradley said he is excited to hear about the proposals — especially hiring more workers, which could reduce heavy caseloads of the state's roughly 2,000 front-line staff.

"I love the 200 more workers," he said. "They ought to let us know when they are going to propose the bill so we can be up there cheering and yelling."

Other changes likely to be included in the bill stem from revelations of internal problems in the state's system for investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect and removing children from birth parents' custody.

Parents have testified before a panel appointed last year by Mark Birdwhistell, secretary of the Health and Family Services Cabinet, that social workers are too quick to remove children from parents, the system is biased against the poor, and social workers are sometimes arbitrary and violate state policy.

Earlier this month, a state investigation found widespread problems in the cabinet's Hardin County social-service region, including instances where social workers lied, falsified records and mistreated parents and children.

Some cases involving state employees have been referred to a prosecutor for possible criminal charges, according to a report by the cabinet's office of inspector general. "I think the OIG report shows there was a lack of accountability," Birdwhistell said.

For that reason, Birdwhistell said, the cabinet will ask the legislature to authorize the panel he appointed to continue its review of alleged problems and provide oversight of the social-services system.

Mary Henderson, a Lexington woman who has testified several times in Frankfort about problems she encountered, said she hopes the proposed changes bring improvements.

"You've got rules and regulations in place," she said. "If you're not going to hold people accountable, it's pointless."

Tom Emberton Jr., the state's undersecretary for social services, said his office already is working on plans to tighten controls over regional offices and improve oversight.

While the inspector general's report focused on the eight-county Lincoln Trail region, Emberton said state officials plan to visit the other regions to determine whether similar problems have occurred.

He also said he will seek to reduce caseloads — now about 19 for each worker. National accreditation standards call for no more than 17 cases per worker. - WRONG: 15

As for safety, the state will seek to equip workers who go on home visits with radios that include a panic button alerting local law enforcement. Social workers have complained cell-phone service isn't available in many rural areas and they might not have time to call for help if attacked.

Emberton said the state also wants to provide workers with GPS — global positioning system — devices that could be used to track them if they are believed to be in danger.

Rep. Tom Burch, D-Buechel , chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee, said he expects to file the Boni Bill in the House the week the session opens Feb. 6 and hold the first hearing soon after that.

State Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, D-Hazard, who also has been working on the proposal, said he believes lawmakers in both the House and Senate are prepared to put more money into social services.

"Everyone is aware that something needs to be done," he said.

Lee said he believes one provision is critical to worker safety: creating secure sites around the state where, if there's any risk of violence, parents can visit their children who are in state custody.

Frederick was taking the baby to his mother's home for a final visit because the state had moved to permanently sever her rights and place the baby for adoption. That's an example of a visit that should have been held in a secure setting, Lee said.

"That should never happen again — ever," Lee said.


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