Forward thinking at DSS

March 05, 2004

BUCKING ITS HISTORY of obfuscation, the state Department of Human Resources has taken some positive steps to comply with a 15-year-old consent decree on its treatment of children in its care.

It's about time.

Last month, Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe ordered the city's Department of Social Services to set averages for all continuing caseloads at 20 cases per worker, which matches the requirements of the decree for foster care workers and exceeds it for kinship care workers. He also wrote to the folks at the Annie E. Casey Foundation to ask them to verify the numbers and types of cases and workers.

Caseload numbers have been a point of contention since the state pledged to follow the consent decree. There have been accusations that DSS was dividing the total number of cases by the number of positions allocated, more and more of which were empty slots because of a series of hiring freezes. Also, a past practice of assigning "coverage workers" with no special knowledge of the case to fill in at hearings in place of an off-duty case worker - as well as having Child Protective Services workers handling foster care cases - has skewed past results. Some foster care workers continued to complain of caseloads of 30 or more, according to a plaintiff's report last year.

Should Casey agree to audit the figures, which it would share with both the state and the plaintiffs' lawyers, a great deal of dust would settle. The class-action lawsuit that spawned the consent decree could be that much closer to settlement, too.

The department's hiring of 30 more case workers, the first of whom are in pre-service training now, may not bring it to the newly set targets, but it's a step in the right direction.

Of course, the social services net isn't nearly mended. Other counties still suffer high caseloads and shrinking staff, and there are plenty of other problems in the city's DSS as well. Not to mention that an order - and an invitation - isn't the same as completed action.

But it is the first time in at least 15 years - and five department secretaries - that the state has agreed that these changes are needed and started making them. We trust the progress will continue.

Correction

An editorial Wednesday incorrectly stated the status of Haiti's parliament. The parliament stopped functioning in January with the expiration of a majority of members' terms. The Sun regrets the error.

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