Building a better DSS

January 07, 2004

CHANGE IS SORELY needed at the city's Department of Social Services, and the agency's newest idea, to consolidate some neighborhood offices into regional centers, is worth a look. But buildings don't deliver services, people do.

When a man fighting homelessness gets a letter from a DSS worker one day saying he doesn't qualify for aid, then another from another worker the next day telling him he does, it doesn't really matter to him where the office is. He just wants the right answer.

And when a child falls into the foster care safety net, we want to be confident that DSS has checked out the criminal record of the foster parent with whom she will be living. That check didn't happen in almost one-fourth of foster care cases in the first six months of 2003.

Improving service means working to restore staffing - for example, to reach the state-mandated 15 foster care cases per worker. It means better training for front-line workers, and real-time supervision. It means more money spent up front.

Interim chief Floyd R. Blair has requested a 2 percent to 3 percent increase in DSS's budget for the next fiscal year. Most is for staffing - a critical need in a department that has lost some 300 positions in the past two years and holds another 90 or so empty in the state's hiring freeze. Though it won't reach full staffing, such a boost, along with the 50 new hires announced in December, would set the department back on the right track after years of budget - and service - erosion.

Other planned reforms sound promising, including more internal auditing, working to improve supervisors' management skills and a restated commitment to comply with consent decrees, state laws and legislative audit recommendations.

As for the proposal to close nine of 20 DSS offices in the city, the question is whether such a change is for the better. If it means some people who now have to go to three offices to get their food stamps, check on homeless benefits and get access to medical care would have to go to only one, that's good. If it means others would have less access to child care or have to transfer from bus to bus to get to the downtown office - or that fewer workers would do outreach in the neighborhoods - that's not so good.

DSS says the buildings plan is tentative and at least a year away. The department and its parent, the state Department of Human Resources, must talk with their clients to make sure that the remaining offices really are accessible and more user-friendly, and that they're cost-effective. It could turn out, for example, that once staff members are better connected by computer and phone, all the offices could become "one-stop" centers for the same net cost.

Meanwhile, increasing staff and improving services ought to be the top budget priority for an agency so critical to the welfare of this state's most vulnerable citizens.

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