Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.
Constitution: Boost DFACS salaries
When his daughter announced that she planned to become a special education teacher, Gov. Roy Barnes said, "Great, you'll have a job for life."
Would Barnes have been as enthusiastic if his daughter had chosen to become a social worker for the state of Georgia? Probably not. State social workers are overworked and underpaid.
While Barnes has raised the starting pay from $17,000 to $21,000 for caseworkers for county Departments of Family and Children Services, that is still meager compensation for their emotionally wrenching and sometimes dangerous jobs. If they make a bad decision, a child can die.
DFACS is under siege now because of a series of bad decisions documented by an Atlanta Constitution analysis of 513 deaths of abused and neglected children. Forty-six percent of those deaths occurred while DFACS was actively monitoring the families. One in 6 children died from abuse, homicides, gun accidents or suicides. In 22 percent of the deaths, the state had reviewed the case and closed its file.
Some of those deaths could have been avoided had child protective workers carried smaller case loads, been better trained to recognize the danger signs of serious abuse or responded more aggressively to the initial complaints.
Not every problem in Georgia can be solved by throwing more money at it, but this one can. Salaries for new DFACS workers ought to be on par with those of starting police officers. Otherwise, it will be impossible to attract and retain good people. The Legislature should also invest more money into the training and oversight of the caseworkers who have to validate abuse complaints.
Barnes must also demand all Georgia counties follow the law and set up teams of professionals to review children's deaths that are unexpected or unexplained. A third of the counties disregard the law and don't review all the deaths they're supposed to.
As an open government advocate, Barnes should also insist that the review teams release their findings to the public. If communities understood what was killing their children, they could take the necessary public policy steps to stop the carnage.
Dead children are not a confidential matter. They should be a matter of public outrage. And part of that outrage ought to be over how little we pay the people charged with protecting our most vulnerable citizens.
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