Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.
Constitution: Editorials: Easy fixes for DFACS
The 16-member task force criss-crossing Georgia to figure out what's wrong with the state Division of Family and Children Services can come home. The problems are obvious. So are the solutions.
The state must pay its child protective workers far better salaries and assign them far fewer cases. The workers also need closer supervision and experienced management.
Georgia's child protection caseworkers earn the fourth-lowest starting salaries in the country. Even a raise to $22,044, as proposed by Gov. Roy Barnes, won't lift them out of the basement. The increase won't bring them up to par with what Atlanta pays garbage collectors.
Social services workers also juggle too many cases, which leads to deadly mistakes for the abused and neglected children they oversee. Between the pauper's pay and the challenging caseloads, workers are quitting in droves. The turnover rate last year among Georgia's child protective service workers reached 39 percent. In 22 of the state's smaller counties, it was 100 percent.
Unfortunately, fundamental fixes are unlikely to occur during this session of the Georgia Legislature, which would have to approve the millions of dollars required. Neither the Legislature nor Barnes is treating DFACS salaries as a top priority this session.
To understand what caseworkers face and why children slip through the cracks, the task force ought to cancel its remaining public forums and devote itself to studying the files of every child who died after coming to the attention of DFACS. The task force should also sit down with juvenile judges, caseworkers and child advocates --- those who toil in this unrewarding field every day. Public hearings provide window dressing, but typically only draw out critics who feel maligned by a DFACS investigation.
Even with all that, it's doubtful this task force --- which bypassed some leading local experts on child abuse in favor of business sector appointees --- will turn up anything new. Georgia's convened so many child welfare panels that the collected reports would have to be delivered to the governor by forklift.
The conclusions never vary: put greater resources into protecting kids. For example, build more emergency shelters for children in crisis. The public criticizes DFACS for being too slow to yank kids from dangerous homes, but taxpayers don't want to pay for decent emergency shelters for these youngsters.
Barnes is pushing an independent oversight office to monitor DFACS. On Monday, he also said he wants the records of dead children to be subject to the state Open Records Act. Those are all steps in the right direction, but they fall short of the complete overhaul that DFACS needs. Barnes probably feels that's more than he can handle right now since he's toe to toe with angry teachers and voucher-supporting Republicans over his controversial education reform bill.
But Barnes ought to at least seek higher raises for caseworkers and force the agency to revamp the dozen or so counties where children stand at greatest risk. The place to start is Fulton, which has the largest number of deaths of DFACS children in the state.
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