Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The 'gutting' of the Boni Bill

Fletcher, others blast changes in social worker bill
Most efforts to boost safety were removed
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Feb. 17, 2007, pg. B1.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — The daughter of a slain Western Kentucky social service aide said yesterday that she is outraged a bill named after her mother has been stripped of most provisions aimed at improving social worker safety.

"I feel like they used our family," said Sandy Travis of Webster County, whose mother, Boni Frederick, was murdered on the job last Oct. 16. "I think it's a crying shame. It was just like a political commercial."

Gov. Ernie Fletcher sharply criticized House Democratic leaders yesterday for "gutting" House Bill 362, named the "Boni Frederick Bill."

"It took away everything that's important for the safety of social workers and the children they serve," a visibly angry Fletcher said in an interview. "I think this is just a bad message to send to the folks out there on the front line."

State social workers also said they were shocked Thursday when the House Health and Welfare Committee suddenly produced and approved a new version of the bill.

"We were blown away; we were just speechless," said Jefferson County social worker Patricia Pregliasco.

Frederick's death prompted an outpouring of complaints from social workers statewide about the dangers of the job and the need for more staff and better safety measures.

House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, defended the changes, saying the House wants more time to study the problems of the state's child welfare system.

"We're trying to fix it," Richards said yesterday. "The taxpayers don't want us putting money in a system that's broken."

The new version strips out about $20million in improvements — including hiring another 300 frontline workers to handle child abuse and neglect cases — and calls for further study.

Pregliasco yesterday described the new version as "an empty bill."

"We're just not important — that's the message we got," she said. "We're not important and the vulnerable children of Kentucky aren't important."

Fletcher singled out Richards for his harshest criticism. Fletcher, a Republican, is seeking re-election and Richards is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.

Richards said House leaders decided to revise the bill "to make sure we are spending the money wisely," a claim Fletcher derided.

"He's never had a problem spending money before," Fletcher said. "It's amazing this year he seems to have a spending concern, especially on problems that are bipartisan and urgent in nature."

Fletcher said the money is available from the state's projected $401million surplus for this biennium.

Officials with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services worked with lawmakers from both parties and a task force to develop the original bill and said the matter doesn't need more study.

"We've already done the research," said Mark Birdwhistell, the cabinet's secretary. "It's now time for action."

In addition to money to hire more workers, the original bill called for funds to create secure visitation centers for parents separated from their children and to purchase emergency communications equipment for social workers.

Travis had argued for the visitation centers — no longer in the bill — saying that might have saved her mother's life.

Frederick, 67, was beaten and stabbed when she took a baby for a final home visit in Henderson with his mother, who was about to lose permanent custody. The mother and her boyfriend have been charged with murder.

"What it looks like now, if this bill goes through, there's not going to be nothing left of it," Travis said yesterday.

Birdwhistell said he got no details of the changes in the bill until the new version was handed out at the meeting.

"I was just stunned," he said. "It basically took out all the core provisions we've all talked about and bought into."

Birdwhistell said he also was baffled by language in the new bill authorizing the cabinet to use up to $2.5bmillion from its existing budget to pay for "emergency safety needs of front-line staff."

His cabinet would have to take the money from other services it provides to the poor, elderly and disabled, he said.

Even though no committee members voted against the bill, some weren't happy, including Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, who has argued for several years that the state social service system is acutely underfunded and understaffed.

The bill directs a task force to study the matter and report to lawmakers before the 2008 session. "I'm of the view that we can't afford to wait to put some of those positions back on the street," Lee said yesterday.

Lee and Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, the bill's primary sponsor, said they believe there's still a chance to restore funds for the bill. That could happen at the last minute if it winds up in a conference committee to resolve differences between House and Senate versions.

"I think both sides will come up with something," Burch said.

Fletcher said he has asked House leaders to reconsider their actions.


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