State agency faces $1.5 million penalty

Human resources department has failed to reach staffing goals

October 01, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Maryland's Department of Human Resources faces a $1.5 million penalty today for failing to meet caseworker staffing levels mandated by the General Assembly.

Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe wrote to the chairmen of the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee last month to request an extension to the requirement that the agency fill 1,880 caseworker and supervisor positions by Oct. 1. Despite stepped-up recruitment efforts, he said yesterday, the agency fell short by about 130.

He said he continues to negotiate with legislators and hopes to avoid having any of his budget withheld.

"Any money the legislature allocates to child welfare is in everyone's best interests," McCabe said. "We're in agreement as to what the goal is. To withhold money is not going to help us achieve our ultimate goal."

But Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, a Prince George's County Democrat who is chairwoman of the subcommittee that oversees McCabe's agency, said proper staffing levels are a matter of life and death.

The agency has failed for years to maintain adequate staffing levels, Lawlah said, but the issue became more pressing last spring after month-old twins were beaten to death in Baltimore after state social workers failed to warn the hospital where they were born about their mother's history of neglect.

"We don't want to withhold money from programs, but we will withhold money to force accountability," Lawlah said. "That's the stick we have, and we will use it."

Del. Norman H. Conway, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the budget language makes the withholding of funds automatic, but he said he and other legislators will meet with McCabe this month to review his progress. After that, he said, some or all of the money could be released.

"Our point isn't to create more problems," Conway said. "What we want to do is to make sure the positions that have been allocated are filled. This is one of these very critical areas where we have had extensive problems."

McCabe said he has taken steps to expedite hiring and has stepped up recruitment efforts. The department is advertising its openings on social service Web sites and at colleges and universities that offer social work degrees, he said.

The department has hired more than 100 caseworkers and supervisors since the beginning of the year, but nearly as many have left.

"Child welfare is among the most stressful careers you can think of," he said. "We are asking low-paid people with hearts of gold to make life-and-death decisions, sometimes in dangerous circumstances."

McCabe said he hopes to catch up to the department's goal by spring, but the progress is not encouraging, said Sharon Rubinstein, spokeswoman for Advocates for Children and Youth.

"As nearly as quickly as they can hire people, they are losing people," she said. "This is a matter of urgency, and getting an extension seems at odds with the urgent nature of the need."

Charlie Cooper, administrator of the state-funded Citizens Review Board for Children, said he believes that even if the state reached the 1,880-worker goal, it would be hundreds short of the number of workers needed to adequately care for the state's at-risk children.

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