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New DHR commissioner inspiring new hope

By Ed Brock

The new commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources has inspired optimism in Clayton and Henry county social workers.

On Wednesday Commissioner Beverly "BJ" Walker came to visit the Clayton County Department of Family and Children Services and spent about three hours talking to the staff. That was a first for Lisa Spivey, administrator of Child Protective Services, who has been with DFCS for 13 and a half years.

The visit was inspirational, Spivey said.

"It was very nice for a person in her position to come down and spend time with us and let us ask her questions. And we ask hard questions, and she answered them," Spivey said.

Walker took the position on May 17. Prior to that she served for two years as the director of Community Operations for the Illinois Department of Human Services where she managed 131 offices and 5,400 employees, according to he DHR biography.

From 1995 to 1997 she served as an assistant for Human Service Reform under Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar and has served as a curriculum developer, editor and consultant for Chicago Public Schools, the American Red Cross and the U.S. Army.

While Walker could not return a phone call seeking comment on Friday, in an article she wrote for an upcoming DHR newsletter Walker puts in writing an approach to policy that Spivey said most impressed her.

"Ask yourself what you would do if the decision involved a family member," Walker wrote. "What would you do if this were your child, your mother, your brother? Ask that question and then do that work. If we keep asking that question, we will do the right thing time and time again."

In her column Walker points out that DHR is a large agency with a $2.6 billion budget supporting 19,000 employees who respond to more than 80,000 reports of child abuse and neglect a year.

Walker says she wants to "raise the bar" and make the Georgia DHR the best in the nation. She wants to improve the child welfare system "so that children are safe and in nurturing, permanent homes" and to restructure the system for delivering services for people with mental illness, developmental disabilities and addictive diseases.

Walker is a breath of fresh air, said Clayton County DFCS Director Cathy Ratti. She's also never seen a commissioner take such a personal interest in the people in the system, especially the DFCS heads in the nine metro counties that see the most cases.

"She's bringing us in once a week and we're dialoging," Ratti said.

At the top of the list of concerns Ratti and Sandra Chaves, deputy director of the Henry County DFCS, want to see addressed is doing something about the caseload faced by both departments.

"That's just our main concern right now, to have a workable caseload so we can work with the families," Chaves said.

Chaves said she hasn't met Walker personally yet, but she's heard her speak at meetings.

"She had some very good ideas," Chaves said.

When the new Henry County DFCS Director Evelyn Norman starts to work on Monday she will have to take care of 330 children in foster care.

In Clayton County as of June 30 DFCS had 632 active investigations and ongoing cases as well as 515 children in foster care.

Ratti also said she likes what Walker said Wednesday about looking at the agency's policy.

"She's taking a close look at how our policy sometimes hinders us from doing what is right," Ratti said.

And Ratti said Walker also wants to work on diverting inappropriate cases out of the child protective services, such as cases that are baseless and stem from custody disputes. Walker is also emphasizing the need to involve other community agencies in the process of providing human services.

"She's actually saying these things out loud," Ratti said.