Child welfare scramble

Our view: Hiring more caseworkers should be a higher priority

April 29, 2008

Baltimore's Department of Social Services continues to lurch from one crisis case to the next with caseworkers and supervisors who are undertrained and overworked. State and city officials are taking some sensible steps to attract more - and more-qualified - workers. But conditions also have to improve to make these jobs more desirable, and the state and city need to consider these improvements a more urgent financial priority.

DSS is responsible for 60 percent of Maryland's 10,000 children in foster care, and some of the more sensational and tragic cases of abuse and neglect have occurred under its watch. Despite the glaring spotlight, DSS is still woefully understaffed. Recommended standards of the Child Welfare League of America call for DSS to have 807 caseworkers and 161 supervisors. As of January, the agency had 736 caseworkers and 130 supervisors. This is a chronic and indefensible shortage that puts vulnerable children in a cruel state of double jeopardy. If the agency can't meet the standards, a federal judge in a long-standing lawsuit could force them to.

In a highly competitive market, DSS has been offering signing bonuses and, with state approval, somewhat higher salaries to entice more candidates. But while the agency is scrambling to hire more workers, it also needs to be more rigorous in ensuring that they are better qualified. Only about 10 percent of current caseworkers have graduate degrees in social work or are licensed social workers.

Beyond credentials, more workers need practical training and better supervision. Work force improvements may be costly in the short run, but state and city officials should know by now that they can make a world of difference to a troubled family.

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