Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.

DFACS gets an optimistic repairwoman
New overseer of Fulton County agency has experience in reforming social service.
Ron Martz - Staff
Sunday, April 23, 2000

The problems in child welfare are the same wherever Beverly Jones looks.

Low salaries. Too many cases for each worker. Not enough training. Poor supervision. Rock-bottom morale. And a large, inefficient system that has been moving in one direction so long, anyone who thinks they can turn it around quickly is either foolish or an incurable optimist.

Jones, a veteran of more than 30 years of social work, considers herself something of an optimistic realist --- and not at all foolish. After working to reform the child welfare systems in Arkansas and Washington, she brings that approach to a newly created position overseeing the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services.

"Part of social work training is the belief in the capacity to change. I have that belief. I wouldn't have come if I thought it was hopeless," said Jones, 52.

She believes there's reason for hope in Fulton County, where severe problems handling child abuse cases have come under intense scrutiny from Gov. Roy Barnes, state legislators and the media.

"The system here is not broken. It has some strengths. But we need to work on those strengths," she said.

Success needs support

State officials say repairs to the Fulton County system are being tackled first because of the severity of the problems, and they hope to use those changes as a model for other DFACS offices throughout Georgia.

But Jones knows no matter how optimistic she is about change, it is unlikely to happen overnight.

Her success will be at least partly dependent on the support --- financial, political and public --- she gets, say people who have worked with her before. Despite good intentions and some progress, Jones was able to do only so much in Arkansas and Washington, they say, because of a lack of resources or leadership above her.

Department of Human Resources Commissioner Audrey Horne, who appointed Jones special field coordinator for Fulton County DFACS, admits the office needs additional resources, financially and structurally, and that Jones' success will depend largely on the state's ability to provide them.

"She is a positive person and has seen some difficult situations and managed them in the past, and we believe she can do that here," Horne said.

She said all Fulton County DFACS cases are being reviewed in an effort to establish a set of standards. The Department of Human Resources is also trying to get additional analyses of cases from its public health and mental health personnel. In addition, the GBI will soon begin training child protective services caseworkers in Fulton County how to better present their cases in court.

The county office came under intense criticism last fall following a series of articles in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the death of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson of Atlanta. The youngster and his siblings had been the subject of eight reports of abuse or neglect to the state, but he was still in the custody of his grandmother when he died in January 1998, weighing only 29 pounds.

Terrell's grandmother, aunt and the aunt's boyfriend have been charged in his death.

Barnes ordered a GBI investigation of cases handled by Fulton County DFACS and five other county offices. And the General Assembly this year passed four bills meant to provide better safeguards for children

Before Jones' position was created, one field coordinator was responsible for DFACS offices in Fulton, DeKalb, Rockdale and Gwinnett. By separating Fulton County from the mix and putting Jones in charge of it, Horne believes that office, with its 1,200 workers and an annual budget of more than $100 million, will be made more accountable to the state.

Ralph Mitchell, longtime director of Fulton County DFACS, will remain in that position. But Mitchell, currently on medical leave, will now report to Jones, who will report to DFACS state director Juanita Blount-Clark.

"We certainly had some concerns about leadership in Fulton and needed to make sure we had some oversight so the kinds of services we wanted to happen there were happening," Horne said.

The first major issue Jones will tackle is looking at how Fulton County assesses at-risk children and trying to determine what can be done to ensure a higher level of protection.

"The mandate is to look at child safety and child protection and see what we're doing and what we're not doing and what we can do to make it better immediately," said Jones.

The Arkansas system

This is not the first time Jones, a 1969 graduate of Rutgers University who has worked in child protective services as a caseworker and supervisor, has faced what seem to be almost insurmountable challenges in a child welfare system.

In 1993, she took over the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Service after serving as a court-appointed monitor there.

"It was, in many respects, a system under siege," said Judith Faust, who preceded Jones and was interim director of the Arkansas agency for two years. "Caseloads were large. Workers were often unqualified and then not sufficiently trained. It was pretty typical of the sad shape of child welfare around the country."

Faust, now a professor at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock's School of Social Work, said one of the most significant changes Jones made was getting the state's universities engaged in child welfare issues.

"She's certainly a committed and passionate advocate for kids and families," said Faust, "but she was fighting an uphill battle with legislative appropriations and competing priorities at the state level."

She had some successes. Amy Rossi, executive director of the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said Jones was able to institute a "medical passport" for children that provided them comprehensive physical and mental health examinations shortly after they entered the system. Those records then followed them through the system.

But Jones struggled with reducing caseloads for social workers and maintaining staffing in a system where the turnover rate was around 50 percent annually, according to Rossi.

"I don't think you can just point the finger at Bev and say she was to blame. It was a matter of dealing with an old system and trying to get it turned around," said Rossi.

Working in Washington

While in Arkansas, Jones said, she was able to increase salaries of caseworkers and create a career ladder so they did not have to move into supervisory positions to make more money. Jones acknowledged the bureaucracies in Arkansas and Washington impeded some efforts. She also admits that in Arkansas, "I wish we had been a bit bolder on some of the things we tried to do."

After leaving Arkansas in 1998, Jones went to Washington and spent two years as administrator of Intake and Family Services for the Child and Family Services Agency. The agency was in receivership as a result of a federal suit that cited the system's failures to properly provide for children.

Tom Wells, the attorney who filed the suit, said Jones "is a very bright, capable woman who has a strong background in government-operated child welfare systems. But I don't believe she was in a position here where one could adequately assess her ability because she was No. 3 or 4 in the system."

Wells, now director of the Consortium for Child Welfare in Washington, said Jones "has a refreshing, sunny personality, which is often all too rare in government."

As in Arkansas, Jones instituted a health care tracking system for children and worked on recruiting and retaining workers who had the same sort of commitment to the job that she did when she first started in 1969.

She wants that same sort of commitment from caseworkers in Fulton County, she said, but she knows that will be difficult to achieve without better pay, training and supervision.

"I can't turn it around by myself," Jones said. "But I view it as an opportunity to make it better and restore some credibility to the agency. Change is difficult. And it's not linear. But it is possible."

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