By Deb Yetter
Courier-Journal, Sept. 15, 2015
Acknowledging that Kentucky’s social workers are overworked and underpaid, the state’s commissioner of social services said Monday her agency will seek “millions of dollars” to hire more workers, boost salaries and improve working conditions.
“We’ve got to put our money where our mouth is,” said Teresa James, whose Department for Community Based Services has undergone about $50 million in budget cuts since 2009.
“Kentucky needs to decide if they really do care about kids and, if so, that budget has got to change,” James said, speaking at a meeting in Louisville of the state’s Child Fatality and Near Fatality Review Panel.
James said the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which includes social services, plans to present a substantial request for funds to the Kentucky General Assembly when it meets in 2016 to begin drafting the state’s next two-year budget.
James’ comments come as her agency’s workers struggle under a growing workload of child abuse and neglect cases, with high staff vacancies and frequent turnover as workers quit.
They also come as Indiana, facing a rising tide of child abuse and neglect cases, is working to add more than 100 social service workers at an estimated cost of $7.2 million, at the direction of Gov. Mike Pence, the Indianapolis Star reported last month.
Indiana, like Kentucky, has seen an escalation in numbers in its child welfare system, reaching more than 18,000 children in June, the Star reported. The 113 workers it plans to add are in addition to 117 more social service workers the Indiana legislature authorized this year.
In Kentucky, the number of children removed from homes because of abuse or neglect in June reached more than 8,000, which James at the time acknowledged was “pretty close to an all-time high.”
James said that without more workers to manage the cases, children are remaining in foster care longer.
Advocates say that takes an emotional toll on families and increases financial costs to the state.
James said that’s unlikely to change without more resources for child protection.
“Are kids staying longer in foster care?” she said to the child fatality panel. “I can assure you they are because of the caseloads right now.”
Child advocates have long argued the state’s social service system needs more money and more workers to better manage increasingly complex child abuse and neglect cases involving drug abuse, domestic violence and extreme poverty.
Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said he was encouraged by James’ proposal for more funds.
“I think that’s really hopeful,” he said. ”That saying ‘put your money where your mouth is’ couldn’t be more true.”
Rep. Rick Rand, a Bedford Democrat and chair of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee, where work originates on the budget, said he understands the need though he couldn’t say yet whether any additional funds might be available for social services.
“I certainly would be in favor of trying to find more money,” he said. “It’s just too early to know.”
Rep. Tom Burch, a Louisville Democrat and chair of the House Health and Welfare Committee, said such funding for social services is long overdue.
“I’m going to do the best I can to get it in there,” he said.
Roger Crittenden, a retired Franklin Circuit judge who serves as chair of the child fatality panel, told James that panel members understand the issue, but need better data about cases and workers to lobby on the agency’s behalf.
“The panel wants to support the cabinet,” he said, urging James to provide more specific numbers on caseloads, worker experience and what reasons workers cite for quitting their jobs.
James didn’t provide average caseloads per worker Monday, but statewide averages the cabinet released in June showed about 24 cases per worker.
But social workers, court officials and others say those averages are misleading because many individual workers are carrying caseloads of 50 to 60 or more cases, all involving families and children they must visit, court appearances and reports and other documentation they must complete.
James didn’t specify how much money the cabinet will seek in 2016.
But James said she would like to increase salaries for the state’s 1,500 front-line social service workers who investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect and oversee families in cases where problems are substantiated. Workers currently start at about $32,000 a year.
She said she also would like to hire more workers and change the personnel structure to offer social workers a “career ladder” where they could obtain promotions and pay increases without moving to supervisory jobs.
Workers now must seek a supervisor’s job for better pay when many would prefer to remain as social workers, she said.
Brooks said he was encouraged by the concept of a career ladder that would offer more opportunities to good workers who don’t want to move into management.
“A caseworker who is really good shouldn’t have to become a bureaucrat in Frankfort to make more money,” he said.
Rand acknowledged the upcoming governor’s race could have an impact on the state’s next two-year budget because the governor presents the budget proposal to the General Assembly. But it’s the House that draws up the budget bill and reaches an agreement with the Senate, Rand said.
“Once we get the budget in the in the House we are pretty good at putting our priorities on it,” he said. “Those types of (social) services have always had a high priority in the House.”
Contact Deborah Yetter at (502) 582-4228 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.