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

Constitution: Saving Georgia kids is worth the cost
Thursday, July 27, 2000

In the last five years, hundreds of Georgia children have died of abuse and neglect even after coming to the attention of the Department of Family and Children Services. Many of these deaths could have been averted if the state had stepped in and removed the children from clearly dangerous situations.

However, social service agencies are underfunded and social workers are overworked, a deadly combination for abused children. Fixing those problems will not come cheap. Human Resources Commissioner Audrey Horne wants $20 million next year to begin a rebuilding that she says will require three years.

Give it to her. She's outlined a list of priorities that are right on target: A centralized system to track abuse reports; a $10,000 increase in starting salaries of social workers; reductions in average caseloads per worker from 30 or more down to 14; and review teams to examine whether a child's death could have been prevented. Horne also wants transitional programs to help foster children ages 18 to 21 learn how to live on their own.

Considering the dangers they face and the innocent lives they protect, social workers ought to be among the highest-paid state employees. Instead, Georgia workers are among the lowest paid in the nation, with starting salaries of $22,044.

That salary reflects a raise won by Gov. Roy Barnes, who explained, "I'm trying to make as much progress as I can raising salaries for our child-protection workers. Unfortunately, there's only so much we can do in any given year."

Let's look at the recent given year. Barnes raided the state's tobacco settlement to finance his OneGeorgia economic redevelopment project. The project enjoyed a $20 million launch this summer.

So money can be found when lawmakers look hard enough. For the sake of abused and neglected children, they ought to find the $20 million that Horne deems essential to do the job. Then they ought to watch closely to make sure the job is being done.

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