What pledge? Whose kids?

March 18, 2004

"ANY HIRING FREEZE of state employees should not affect our child welfare programs." That was soon-to-be Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. campaigning in October 2002, a year into such a freeze. Yet more than 15 months later, the freeze hasn't been lifted. True, four dozen workers are being added as a quick fix this spring, but hundreds more are needed.

It's bad enough that the state is backpedaling on its commitment to adequately staff social services departments to improve care for its kids -- as is required by a 1998 law and repeatedly reinforced in state budget bills. But to promise bold change and not come through is a backhand to harried caseworkers trying to withstand the increasing caseloads and still do good work, the struggling families and kids who need solid service today, the legislators who set a standard that past administrations signed onto, and the voters who expect their government to follow its laws.

For some legislators, the answer is a bill that would require the state to spend the money to hire more workers starting in fiscal 2006. This "child welfare workforce initiative," which has a Senate committee hearing today, echoes the law by the same title that was passed in 1998, this time adding the budget stick. The $12.7 million that would be added the first year is relatively minimal, just under 3 percent of the Department of Human Resources' total requested budget for fiscal 2005. It would be money well spent for front-line service that would help families and save the state money down the line.

Good service changes lives, as one former foster child testified at a House committee hearing last week. Her first caseworker didn't have time to check up on her more than once a month, and the girl eventually ran away from her 10-month limbo at a temporary placement back to an abusive parent. She eventually attempted suicide and ended up in state care again. The next caseworker had a caseload of 15 children (the recommended number), which meant more time for each. The worker found a foster home that enabled the teen-ager to stay in her current school as well as work -- and she pushed the girl to go on to college.

"She was the closest thing to a parent I had," said Grace Avena, now 32, college-educated, married, working as a manager and raising two children. Without that boost, she said, "my children would now be in your hands. [They] would not have had a chance or the mother that they have now."

The administration argues that the target caseload ratios are too pie-in-the-sky, and that tying up money in a future budget is bad management. But if it had spelled out its own improvement plan, something more than the apparently ad hoc announcement of 50 new hires (when the legislative services audit says DHR has the funding in this year's budget to hire 98 workers), perhaps the legislature would have cut it more slack.

At this point, if it takes another law to get the first law enacted, so be it. Times are tough money-wise, but that's no excuse to sit by and watch a system on life support -- and the children it's supposed to help -- slowly slide deeper into trouble.

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