Working to close cracks kids are falling through

June 25, 2014 

Sometimes it really can't be about the money, even when the money is scarce.

Bobby Cagle, interim director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, has been on the job for all of 10 days now. But it didn't take him long to see one thing that needs doing right away: clearing an appalling backlog of child protective service investigations.

Cagle, formerly head of the state's Department of Early Care and Learning, on Tuesday ordered mandatory overtime for DFACS investigators until that backlog is eliminated. How serious is it? The agency has more than 3,300 child protective service investigations currently overdue, a number Cagle says is almost half the total caseload.

"Each of these overdue cases represents a potential risk for vulnerable children in our state, and this requires swift action on our part," Cagle said in a statement. "We must make sure these children are in a safe situation as soon as possible."

He's right, of course; at-risk children are at risk almost constantly, and time is critical. Even the nominal DFACS deadline of 45 days to complete a child risk investigation is a long, if sometimes unavoidable, hang time. When 48 percent of the investigations are overdue, the risk for children just increases with every passing hour.

Is the problem simply one of chilling bureaucratic incompetence? Not really.

For one thing, the number of social service workers has plummeted in recent years, partly as a result of budget cuts, and partly no doubt because of the severe strains of the job. This kind of work is hard, frustrating, depressing, sometimes dangerous and frequently heartbreaking. From an average of 2,228 front-line workers in 2009, as reported by Georgia Health News, that figure in March of this year stood at just 1,633.

Meanwhile, as the worker rolls have shrunk, reports of child abuse and neglect have soared -- from about 6,600 reports per month last year to 8,400 this year, according to the agency's own figures.

The results have been all too predictable. The Child Welfare League of America says caseloads of 12 to 17 families per worker are optimal. In metro Atlanta, some caseworkers are trying to monitor 100 families each, a number CWLA spokesperson Linda Spears called "extraordinarily high and entirely untenable."

Gov. Nathan Deal has said DFACS needs a change in institutional culture, especially with regard to the focus on keeping families intact regardless of sometimes dangerous dysfunction. That sounds right, but to a worker with a 100-family caseload, it's probably moot.

Deal has said he will (if reelected) seek funding for another 500 caseworkers over the next three years, and child welfare advocates are calling on the General Assembly to adequately fund the child protective services component of the state's social safety net.

One child abuse or neglect death is tragic. The inevitable toll in a system as inadequate as Georgia's is horrific.

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