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

Journal: SOCIAL WORKERS ON THE EDGE: State needs to do all it can to protect children from harm
Jim Wooten - Staff
Friday, January 14

The worst job in Georgia, the absolute worst, is welfare social worker. Guess wrong and tragedy results. Or public and professional humiliation.

When a hospital social worker in Gwinnett County intervened almost two years ago --- unwisely, as it turned out --- to take custody of newborn twins she thought were being neglected, public outrage followed.

Even Gov. Zell Miller intervened, calling on the commissioner of the Department of Human Resources to investigate custody procedures in the office that handled the twins' case.

When a social worker, acting on word from an ambulance crew that children were being severely neglected in a Fulton County home in 1998, took custody of six children, public outrage followed.

Even legislators were outraged. The chairwoman of the House Children and Youth Committee, Rep. Georganna Sinkfield (D-Atlanta), expressed it: "I know other legislators will ask, 'Well, how many people does this happen to?' But if it happens to one, it's one too many."

This, then, is the dilemma. The public is asking social workers, who are often young and inexperienced, to know precisely when to intervene in a family to protect children --- but not to infringe on the rights of adults.

Georgia's child protection social workers with college degrees start at salaries as low as $17,000. Gov. Roy Barnes proposes to raise that to $21,000. He is also asking for a child advocate independent of DFACS to "investigate and intervene in child abuse and fatality cases." Both should be approved.

Despite that, there's no question that strong disciplinary action, including dismissal, should be taken against social workers who don't follow established procedures and regulations. Barnes himself looked at the child abuse cases that have been reported in this newspaper and concluded, "There's something wrong here." DFACS, he says, "is a mess, I don't mind telling you."

He is transferring 171 welfare workers from eligibility determination to child protective services and creating a toll-free line to report abuse. The active caseload should be reduced to no more than 12 per social worker.

But the problem really is terribly complicated. Barnes touches on another aspect of it with his request for $4.1 million to start an early outreach program for at-risk families. "This program," Barnes said, "will target poor and first-time parents, as well as mothers and fathers with substance abuse and alcohol abuse problems."

We are attempting to create an intervention system that allows individuals who create children to behave as irresponsibly as they choose, to have children without marrying and to assume that the male will be absent from the child's life --- and some $21,000 social worker will be able to apply proper procedure and the wisdom of the ages to intervene at just the precise moment when the child's welfare outweighs the parent's rights.

We have to try, of course. It's simply unacceptable to allow children to remain with adults who harm them.

But more and more, I am drawn back to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's proposals for public orphanages. You can't construct a child safety net for all of society's sick people and its pathologies affecting children.

Jim Wooten is the Journal's editorial page editor. His column appears Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.


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