Pay blamed for dearth of social care Child abuse caseload far exceeds staffing in Baltimore Co.

More calls since girl died

New employees paid less than police recruits, teachers

December 26, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Despite a monthlong drive, Baltimore County officials have been unable to recruit more social workers to handle the flood of child abuse reports prompted by last summer's starvation death of 9-year-old Rita Fisher, and they blame the job's relatively low pay.

"We put the word out. No one has come forward," said Mark B. Vidor, assistant director for child protective services. The county wants to add eight permanent or temporary social workers to the roster of 110 social workers.

The reason for the lack of candidates, is a salary scale that, for example, puts starting pay for a new social worker with a master's degree behind schoolteachers and high-school-educated county police recruits.

A Baltimore County social worker with a master's degree with no experience would start at the statewide entry level pay of $23,624, though most workers with child protective services -- which has 28 social workers -- start at $27,969 because of the difficulty of the work.

County police recruits start at $25,880 and a teacher with a master's degree gets $29,458 to start.

Montgomery County, which merged its health and social services agencies two years ago and made social workers county employees, pays starting social workers $33,198.

Even private nonprofit agencies such as the Methodist Board of Child Care pay more than the state does. Social workers fresh from graduate school get up to $28,000 at his agency, Director Thomas Curcio says.

The state's pay scale for social workers is "atrocious" and in dire need of reform, said Jesse J. Harris, dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Nearly all local social services departments are financed by the state, though about 10 percent of Baltimore County's social workers are county employees who get slightly higher salaries.

Baltimore County social services director Camille B. Wheeler said that finding qualified social workers is getting more difficult because of the low pay.

"It says something about what people really think about social work and about children," Wheeler said of the pay scale.

The situation has been made more acute by the pressure on the department in the wake of the Fisher case.

The Pikesville girl died of starvation June 25, according to a state medical examiner's report. She had several cracked ribs, got no food the last week of her life and weighed 47 pounds at death, according to court records.

Charged with murder are her mother, Mary E. Fisher Utley; elder sister Rose Mary Fisher; and the sister's boyfriend, Frank E. Scarpola Jr. A trial is scheduled for April.

In the months after Rita's death, reports of child abuse in Baltimore County rose by 37 percent. Wheeler and Vidor say hundreds of recent investigations and reports are incomplete.

Officials also say the increased caseload and low salaries have led to a high turnover among social workers.

Because of that overload, the state agreed Nov. 25 to let the county agency hire four temporary, contractual workers, and the county also made efforts to fill four vacancies on the permanent staff.

No temporary workers have been hired, officials say, and a vacancy has offset the gain of hiring one permanent social worker.

The pay problem is not unique to Baltimore County.

According to a U.S. General Accounting Office report in July, low pay is a major factor in the inability to attract and keep people qualified to handle the growing number of child abuse cases nationally -- nearly 1 million cases a year.

For most agencies in Maryland, state and local officials say, the answer is hiring people with bachelor's degrees -- including liberal arts majors with no social work education.

Baltimore City hires scores of contractual workers with bachelor's degrees, but they receive no job benefits and leave as soon as they get enough experience to find better jobs, said spokeswoman Sue Fitzsimmons.

Wheeler refuses to hire people with bachelor's degrees, saying she wants people with advanced degrees to handle the often difficult, stressful child-abuse investigations and the placement of vulnerable children in foster care.

She said Baltimore County's agency is one of 16 in the nation accredited by the Council on Accreditation of Services for Families and Children and the only one in Maryland. "We really care about the quality of people who work for us," she said.

Lynda Fox, deputy secretary for the state Department of Human Resources, suggested Wheeler's recruiting problems could be partly of her own making. "She's sort of restricting the labor pool," she said of Wheeler's policy of requiring advanced degrees.

Fox also said the state has heard no outcry from local agencies for higher salaries for social workers. She said that although Montgomery County pays more than the state, "the cost of living in Montgomery County is a great deal higher."

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