Social Services hire plan criticized

Fifty new caseworkers small step but not enough, children's advocates say

December 07, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The state's pledge to hire 50 caseworkers is a small step forward for the city's troubled Department of Social Services, but advocates for children say the hiring falls far short of curing the ills of a system in which foster children are often abused or neglected.

For staff members serving foster children, caseloads will drop by about two children each, from about 23 children per worker to about 21. But the caseworkers will remain overworked as the ratio continues to fail to meet the standard of 15 children per worker required in a 1998 state law, said Mitchell Mirviss, a lawyer who represents foster children in a class action lawsuit against the agency.

"We can only hope that it's the beginning of turning the tide with this department, but we still have a long, long way to go," said Mirviss. "And you can't solve the problem without reasonable caseloads and resources."

The Ehrlich administration's announcement Thursday that the state will hire the new caseworkers, which will cost more than $2 million a year, followed complaints that the city's social services agency is dangerously understaffed, chaotic and mismanaged.

The department, which is run by the state, serves about 7,400 foster children in the city, about 40,000 families on welfare and 96,000 families that receive food stamps.

Mayor Martin O'Malley sued Ehrlich last week over the management of the agency, claiming that Ehrlich's choice for interim director, Floyd Blair, lacks the management experience or city approval to meet legal requirements for the job.

Ten days later, Blair and his boss, Department of Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe, said they were working with the governor to rebuild the department.

Among the steps they are taking to improve the agency is the installation of 1,000 computers and a $4 million phone system with voice mail, which many workers have lacked.

"We have people who have been using scraps of paper to keep track of information, caseworkers sharing telephones, and customers had a hard time reaching caseworkers," said Norris West, a department spokesman.

West said a hiring freeze instituted in October 2001 prevented the department from making progress toward meeting the staffing levels required by the 1998 law. That freeze has been lifted.

"Now we are moving in the right direction, trying to get in line with the 1998 legislation," West said.

The department has about 2,400 employees, fewer than it had two years ago, before the hiring freeze started.

Since October 2001, about 300 vacant positions have been eliminated as workers have retired or left and not been replaced, and three assistant directors were forced to retire last month.

In the first six months of this year, the number of positions for workers serving children in the foster care program fell by almost a third, from 346 to 241, according to court records.

Hiring an additional 50 people - 30 of whom will work with children - will help, but the department will remain far short of the staffing required by law, said Jann K. Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth.

Problems unrelated to staffing include insufficient training and performance by workers, and a lack of medical care for children, Jackson said.

"We should not think for one moment that the problems are now fixed," said Jackson. "This isn't just a matter of insufficient staffing. The caseworkers who are there must make sure that the children are getting the services they are entitled to by law."

Hiring more caseworkers in Baltimore also doesn't solve the department's staffing problems statewide, where it is about 400 caseworkers short of the standards of the 1998 law, said Jim McComb, chairman of the Coalition to Protect Maryland's Children.

Installing 1,000 more computers in the troubled Baltimore office will help, but that agency's workers may not have the training and supervision to use the technology, McComb said.

An October report by the state Department of Legislative Audits revealed that the state spent $763,000 in September last year buying 1,700 personal digital assistants with built-in cameras to help caseworkers document their monthly interviews with foster children.

The machines didn't help the city social services agency much, however, because workers didn't have software to print the pictures or put the information onto forms. So the employees were forced to use pens and paper to transcribe the information from the hand-held computers onto paper forms, according to the report.

"That still remains an issue," West said.

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