State News

January 25, 2013

DHS commissioner: child care agency needs staff

ATLANTA — Georgia should spend nearly $5 million to increase the number of caseworkers who investigate abuse of children and the elderly though that funding has not been proposed in the current state budget, the Department of Human Services commissioner told lawmakers Thursday.

Clyde Reese III said caseworker staffing in the state’s child protection agency is effectively at a “floor,” meaning it should not go lower. State leaders have slashed spending from Reese’s department and others while coping with plummeting tax revenues in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and the GOP-dominated General Assembly have ruled out raising taxes.

Technology and computer systems can help department workers process some of the increased workload, particularly determining who is eligible for benefits.

“But on the child welfare side, people actually make a difference,” Reese told a joint meeting of the House and Senate appropriation committees. “You can’t send a computer out to do a home visit. So we really need to try to reorient our staffing so that we concentrate with an emphasis on the child welfare side because we really ... think we’re at pretty much a floor with what we’re able to provide now with what we’re required to do.”

Reese told lawmakers that his agency has seen an increase in reports of fiscal, mental and financial abuse of the elderly. With more staff, Reese said his department could better enforce anti-abuse laws.

He told lawmakers that he wanted to discuss more funding when the economy improves.

Within his department, the Division of Family and Children Services has come under scrutiny, both for its workloads and recent problems. DFCS case managers handle an average of 16 cases, according to department statistics. The average workload stands around 10 cases in metro Atlanta’s Fulton and DeKalb counties as a result of a lawsuit settlement.

“We really have tried not to overload our caseworkers with individual cases, but it’s a very difficult challenge to manage,” Reese said.

Law enforcement officials are investigating accusations that employees in the DFCS office in Columbus destroyed or tampered with child abuse reports so it would appear the office was meeting guidelines on how quickly those complaints should be investigated. Two employees, intake supervisor Phyllis Mitchell and former acting director Deborah Cobb, have been charged with making false statements and encouraging others to lie.

They have not entered a plea to the charges.

A recent state audit found that child protection workers routinely fail to immediately enter child abuse reports into a statewide tracking system. Reese said at the time that better controls could improve the accuracy of data in the system.

Right now, initial reports of child abuse and neglect are directed to individual county DFCS offices during working hours. The department is exploring setting up a statewide system to handle all initial reports, a step that officials hope will standardize how those reports are treated.

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Follow Ray Henry at http://twitter.com/rhenryAP.

 

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