Saturday, March 10, 2007

Senate rules against social worker safety

Funds stripped from social-work bill
Senate panelcuts $4.8 million
Yetter, Deborah and Stephanie Steitzer. Louisville Courier-Journal, March 9, 2007, pg. B1.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — In a surprise move, a Senate committee yesterday stripped all $4.8million from a bill meant to improve the safety of social workers.

The move outraged supporters of House Bill 362, named the "Boni Frederick Bill" after the Western Kentucky social-service aide slain on the job last October.

"They have absolutely gutted the Boni Bill," said an angry Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, the bill's sponsor. "The Senate just doesn't care about social workers and their safety."

Senate leaders defended the move, saying the new version of the bill gives state child welfare officials more flexibility to improve safety.

Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said the House bill was too broad and required specific changes, including establishing secure sites where parents can visit children removed for abuse or neglect.

"That might be a good idea but it's an untested idea," Williams said. "We want to make sure we do everything we can do immediately and not experiment."

But supporters of the original bill — including Frederick's daughter, Sandy Travis of Dixon, Ky. — said the measure is pointless without sufficient funds to hire more front-line workers and open secure centers for family visits.

Frederick was fatally beaten and stabbed after she took an infant to the mother's home for a final visit.

"Do they not even care what this does to the family?" Travis asked. "This is killing my family."

Patricia Pregliasco, a state social worker in Jefferson County, said she and co-workers are overwhelmed by growing caseloads and were counting on funds to hire more staff.

"I've never seen anything so desperate," she said. "It really is frightening, how overloaded the workers are."

The bill the House passed March1 contained $4.8million to hire 76 social workers and 33 aides and clerical workers over the next 16 months. The money also was to be used to open 15 secure centers around the state.

The bill approved yesterday by the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee — which now goes to the full Senate — directs the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to try to find money within the existing budget for safety improvements.

If more money is needed, the bill authorizes the cabinet to ask the governor for $1million.

Health and Family Services Secretary Mark Birdwhistell said he could work with the Senate version of the bill.

But last month — when the House made a similar proposal that he use existing funds to hire more workers — Birdwhistell said that his agency was already strapped and that he had no additional funds without reducing other services for the poor, elderly and disabled.

Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, said yesterday that the system is in dire need of more workers. And he noted that state social-work schools will produce about 80 college graduates this year.

"To not put those people to work is a crime," he said.

Travis said she will keep fighting for more resources for social workers.

"I'm not going to let this die," she said.


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