Money's not the issue in social work vacancies

Howard can pay workers, but state won't allow it

May 30, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

State welfare officials have refused to allow Howard County's social services office to use private and local government funds to fill vacant jobs because it might create a perception that state government is growing, agency leaders said.

Howard's welfare officials said that since Maryland's job freeze started in October 2001, the Ehrlich administration has refused permission to hire five replacement workers, who would not have been paid with state money. That office has suffered a staff loss of about 30 percent, worsening conditions in an already overburdened office. The information was presented to the county social services board in a May 17 report.

"When asked why positions with no state funding are not allowed to be filled, the answer [from state officials] is the `perception' of increasing state government is not acceptable," the report said.

As a result, county money set aside to pay social workers' salaries is sitting unused and private funding is being turned away. For example, already overwhelmed state workers are determining long-term care eligibility for a local nursing home -- a job formerly paid for by Lorien Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Columbia.

"It's a reflection of how deep these cuts have gone into these agencies," said Melody Higgins, chairwoman of Howard County's Social Services Board. "It just doesn't make any sense."

The effects of staff reductions across Maryland have left local social service agencies coping with growing worker stress -- and a growing workload. Social services staff is down by 30 percent in Baltimore County and 25 percent in Harford County. Frederick County has lost about a third of its staff since the freeze went into effect.

"Overall around the state, there is a crisis," although the shortages aren't uniform in every county, said Jim McComb, chairman of the Coalition to Protect Maryland's Children. "It is a major, major problem."

McComb accused Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of reneging on his campaign promise to exempt child welfare workers from the state freeze.

241 vacancies

Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver denied that the governor had broken his promise, although Department of Human Services figures submitted to the General Assembly this year showed 241 child welfare staff vacancies statewide as of Dec. 31, 2003.

State Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe said the Ehrlich administration has authorized hiring 79 more child welfare workers -- graduating University of Maryland social workers -- starting July 1. Howard County will get two of those, he said.

But his department has been "sensitive to the legislature's desire not to expand government," he said. If he hires workers paid for with county or private money and "if the county can no longer support that position, suddenly you have a person. There's a caution in creating new positions," he said.

McCabe explained that although child welfare jobs are considered a "priority" and are exempt from the freeze, "the state does not have adequate funding right now to fill those vacancies. We have to live within our means." He said his goal is to return child welfare staffing to 90 percent of standards set by the Child Welfare League of America, an association of public and private organizations.

Staffing deadlines

The General Assembly also recognized the vacancy problem this year, imposing deadlines in the fiscal 2005 budget to pressure the Ehrlich administration to hire more workers. The budget says that if three separate staffing deadlines -- Oct. 1, Jan. 1 and March 1 -- aren't met, McCabe's department will lose up to $3.5 million.

According to the budget documents, only nine Maryland counties -- all small, rural jurisdictions -- meet the Child Welfare League's staffing standards. In the remaining 14 counties and Baltimore, 204 more caseworkers and supervisors are needed to meet those standards.

Sue Fitzsimmons, spokeswoman for Baltimore's social services agency, said the state keeps figures on overall staffing and she had no clear count of city shortages since the job freeze began.

"There's been some relief," she said, because the city was allowed to hire about 50 more staff members, including 30 in foster care.

`It's insane'

Elsewhere, attrition has been a problem.

"We've all been hit really bad," Kathi Heslin, Howard's assistant director for family investment, told the county Social Services Board at a May 17 meeting. "We have three people taking 779 applications [for food stamps and medical assistance] a month. Every month. It's insane."

Similar situations exist elsewhere.

Maureen Robinson, the Baltimore County department spokeswoman, said that although the Child Welfare League of America recommends caseloads of 12 to 15 cases per social worker, "now we're reaching up to [caseloads] of 25 to 29" per worker.

In Harford County, "one worker had 23 [new] investigations for a month in child investigative services. There should be eight or nine," said county social services Director Jerry Reyerson.

"We're carrying caseloads of 35 to 40," said Carol Ann Mumma, social services director in Wicomico County. "This is a burnout load we've had down here."

Frederick County's agency also lost about one-third of its staff through attrition since the freeze took effect, although new director Diane Gordy said she has been "thrilled" at the support she's getting lately from state officials. She expects permission to hire up to 20 people after July 1, though some will be newly graduated social work students who need close supervision.

"It takes a long time to advertise, recruit and hire," she said.

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