Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Without funding, Boni Bill is just a piece of paper

House backs off funds to boost social workers
Schreiner, Bruce. Kentucky Post, Feb. 16, 2007, pg. A9.

A bill aimed at strengthening protections for Kentucky social workers, stemming from a child welfare worker's slaying, emerged from a House committee Thursday without a commitment for additional state funds to do the job.

The measure would allow the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to shift up to $2.5 million in existing funds to deal with "immediate emergency safety needs." A task force would be formed to look at a broad range of problems -- from recruitment and pay for social workers to caseloads and safety issues.Social workers and their advocates expressed disappointment with the revised bill that won approval from the House Health and Welfare Committee.

"Without funding, it's a piece of paper," Cynthia Howard, a social worker from Louisville, said afterward. "A plan without real financial backing is not a plan."

Health and Family Services Secretary Mark Birdwhistell said the cabinet already has reshuffled existing money it could find to try to enhance safety.

"There's a misperception that we have a lot of loose change," he told the committee. "It's going to take more than loose change to make this happen."

The original bill called for about $20 million over the next 16 months to add more than 300 social services staffers, including 225 social workers, to the state payroll. It also proposed equipping all state social workers with two-way radios equipped with panic buttons. It said that supervised visits between birth parents and their abused or neglected children take place in neutral locations.

The legislation stemmed from last year's death of Boni Frederick, who was stabbed and beaten when she took a 10-month-old boy to his mother's house for a visit near Henderson in October.

The committee-approved bill, named in Frederick's honor, would allow social workers to request quick criminal background checks when working cases.

The measure also would require social workers to report any physical or verbal abuse on the job, and the state would track those incidents. Also, the bill would designate employees to assess the possibility of cases turning violent.

Committee chairman Tom Burch, D-Louisville, said the bill would create a solid foundation to enhance social workers' safety. He said it would be followed with more action in 2008, when lawmakers will pass a new two-year state budget.

"If it takes nine months to build a successful program for social workers ... shouldn't we do it right to start with, rather than jump in," he said.

Burch said the committee was sympathetic to the concerns of social workers, but said there's an unwillingness among lawmakers to reopen the budget this year.

Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, said he was disappointed that the committee didn't commit state funds to begin beefing up the ranks of social workers.

"It is so frustrating to know that we're going to go another 14 months, and we're not going to provide you any relief," he said. "You have my apologies."


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