Monday, April 09, 2007

No funding to build visitation centers - sigh

Social workers hail 'Boni Bill'
New state law offers protection
Yetter, Deborah Yetter, Louisville Courier-Journal, April 6, 2007 , pg. A1.

Nearly six months after a Western Kentucky social service aide was killed on the job, Gov. Ernie Fletcher signed a bill yesterday meant to keep state social workers safer.

Called the Boni Frederick Bill after the worker fatally stabbed and beaten in Henderson last October, it will provide $6 million to hire more social workers, improve security at local offices and create secure sites where parents can visit children removed because of abuse or neglect.

Frederick's daughter, Sandy Travis, of Dixon, Ky., said in an interview it is a huge relief that the bill has become law — after several twists and turns through the legislature that left her fearful nothing would come of the effort inspired by her mother's death.

"I plan on exhaling today," said Travis, who was unable to attend yesterday's ceremony to sign the bill at a state social services office in Louisville. "I am really thrilled. Anything that will keep this from happening to somebody else — how could you not be thrilled?"

The bill includes $3.5 million for security improvements and $2.5 million to hire about 80 front-line workers over the next year. It has an emergency clause, meaning it takes effect immediately.

Fletcher signed the bill surrounded by state social service officials, lawmakers who supported the legislation and some of the state's 1,500 front-line social workers and aides who have long argued the agency is underfunded, leaving workers with rising caseloads and facing increasingly dangerous situations.

The so-called front-line staff members, who work in the field, carry an average of 20 to 25 cases each , while the target is 17 cases each.

"This bill means so much to the workers," said Karen Ivie, a state social worker from Kenton County who spoke at the ceremony. "It just brings up morale so much."

Frederick's death touched off an outpouring of comments from social workers around Kentucky who said their caseloads are too high, they often encounter angry or hostile families in investigating abuse allegations and there simply aren't enough workers to meet the needs of families stressed by violence, poverty and drug or alcohol abuse.

Social workers who attended the signing ceremony said it is a fitting memorial to Frederick.

"We're glad," said Patricia Pregliasco, a social worker in Jefferson County who has been outspoken about the agency's need for more money and more workers.

Lynda Dougherty, who works as an advocate for parents involved in child protection cases in Jefferson County, said she's happy the agency is getting more resources that could help protect workers.

"Everyone don't love their (state) workers but they're doing their jobs and they should be secure," Dougherty said. "It's sad it had to take that one event to make it happen."

Mark D. Birdwhistell, secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said officials began searching for ways to improve the child welfare system immediately after Frederick's death after he and Fletcher agreed "we need to take this tragedy and make something good come out of it."

But he and several others who spoke yesterday, including Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, the sponsor of the legislation, said the $6 million won't be enough.

"It's not everything I wanted," Burch said, speaking to social workers. "It's not everything you wanted. It's only the beginning."

The final bill drops a plan to expand outside visitation centers around the state where parents can visit children — something many advocates had wanted but some members of the Senate opposed. Rather it requires the cabinet to create such centers within its existing facilities.

Burch said he would continue to seek funding to expand such centers, believing they are an important service to families.

The bill also creates a work group to study additional improvements the legislature could authorize in 2008, and Birdwhistell said the visitation centers and security will be among issues studied.

Travis said she doesn't plan to let the issue drop and will continue to advocate improvements in the child welfare system.

"I'm not done," she said. "I plan to get involved."


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