Ray of light at DSS

December 08, 2003

NEWS THAT there will be 50 new faces at Baltimore's Department of Social Services is welcome indeed.

The agency charged with caring for the neediest families is itself in desperate need. It suffers under a debilitating two-year hiring freeze even as more families join the rolls, and continues to work with a too-small slice of the funding pie.

Its failures have been well-documented, including children placed in danger in unsuitable homes or temporary shelters and families unable to get the cards that would allow them access to health care or other services. The time bomb still ticks.

The announced infusion of able hands doesn't mean the hiring freeze is lifted, but it is a sign of the agency's new commitment to change what isn't working. The funds to pay the salaries of these staffers isn't new cash, but money freed up by reorganizing other areas, including an inefficient management structure, according to the state Department of Human Resources.

Extra money is coming in to DSS for infrastructure, including computers and a voice-mail system for caseworkers. In a department in which paychecks and foster payment checks are still done by hand, the technology is a necessity.

As for front-line service, there is much more to be done. DSS still is not complying with most of the conditions of a 1988 consent decree on its care of foster children, including ensuring home visits and medical care for kids and performing background checks on all potential parents.

The 30 hires who are to join those working for foster children and children in the care of relatives would boost their staffing to 410. That's still far short of the 500 needed to meet DHR's goal of 15 children per worker -- not to mention shortages among the staff in the department's other divisions.

DSS and DHR also should ensure that these new workers have experience in social work, not just case management. The problems of the city's at-risk children and families are complex and difficult; the solutions will be more than a matter of making one phone call or pushing another piece of paperwork at them.

The 50 workers and equipment are said to be part of an overhaul of the child welfare system, but DHR has not spelled out much of the detail -- or the big picture. It should.

Trumpeting a clear plan would entice the community resources -- nonprofits, church-based groups and volunteers -- to sign on. That would help build the solution that much faster.

The city's kids are waiting.

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