Social workers demand reduced caseloads

Laws ordering cuts not implemented, demonstrators say

March 03, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

About 100 social workers and students rallied in Annapolis yesterday to urge Gov. Parris N. Glendening to fulfill the terms of a 2-year-old law that would reduce caseloads for caseworkers charged with protecting children.

The General Assembly passed the law after the high-profile death of Rita Fisher, a 9-year-old Pikesville girl who starved to death in 1997. Social workers had not removed the girl from her home despite receiving repeated reports of abuse.

The law ordered lower caseload ratios, required competency testing and banned the use of contractual employees in child welfare positions except in emergencies.

Chanting and marching outside the State House, the social workers said yesterday that the most important part of the law -- reducing caseloads -- hasn't come to pass.

"Workers are so overloaded that they aren't able to give each child the attention they need," said Claudia Harding, a student at the University of Maryland School of Social Work who said she has a hard time getting help for the children at the South Baltimore elementary school where she works. "It's very hard to reach them in the field."

Caseload reduction has started in three pilot locations -- two in rural Caroline and Allegany counties, in addition to Northwest Baltimore. In those places, the number of workers has been doubled.

Last year, legislators passed another law to require caseloads statewide to be brought down by 2003 -- a $50 million proposition. But Glendening has included only an extra $500,000 -- to reduce Montgomery County caseloads -- in his budget for 2001.

Legislators in the House and Senate have sponsored bills this session to try to ensure Glendening brings the caseloads down.

A Child Welfare League of America study commissioned by the state Department of Human Resources recommended in 1997 that the state reduce its average caseloads to 15 foster care cases per worker, and to 12 child protective cases per worker.

At a budget hearing yesterday, Linda Mouzon, director of the state's Social Services Administration, said the administration was on target to meet those goals by 2003, as last year's legislation required.

She said the department is waiting for many counties to undergo an accreditation process that will improve the level of service and more accurately pinpoint what the caseloads should be in each place.

"We don't think it's a snail's pace," Mouzon said, objecting to a fiscal analyst's description of the way the department was moving.

"I don't know," retorted Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat and sponsor of one of the bills to hire more workers. "It sounds pretty accurate to me."

In some counties, workers have twice the number of cases recommended by the Child Welfare League study -- numbers social workers protesting yesterday said were untenable. Because of the heavy loads, many workers leave their jobs, compounding the problem. The current statewide average: 17.2 child protective cases and 18.6 foster cases per worker.

Deaths from child abuse and neglect are up sharply in Maryland, according to state statistics. Thirty-six children died from mid-1998 to mid-1999, compared with 24 during the previous one-year period.

At the same time, the number of cases in which social workers found that abuse or neglect was "indicated" fell, leading advocates to suspect that high caseloads have led to incomplete investigations.

Human-resources officials downplay the numbers, saying the sharp increase in deaths reflects that they have gotten better at finding out when a death results from abuse or neglect.

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