State aims to add 500 DFCS caseworkers

By Ed Brock

Evelyn Hodges and Georgia's other Child Protective Services caseworkers may soon get some help.

Of course for Hodges, a caseworker for the Clayton County Department of Family and Children Services, life has gotten better already. She's down to 15 or 20 cases a week, sometimes 25 cases.

"I think at one month before I'd gotten up to about 35 cases," Hodges said.

Gov. Sonny Perdue is hoping to add 500 DFCS Child Protective Services caseworkers to the state's ranks some time this year. The governor is recommending that the General Assembly assign $5,399,000 to help fund the extra positions and that will draw a federal match of $6,876,000. The money will cover the first six months of the fiscal year and the remaining six months would come from the FY2006 amended budget.

"Protecting children is a top priority for my administration. We cannot stand by while another child suffers abuse or neglect under the state's supervision," Perdue said. "Reducing the load on our caseworkers will allow them to better protect Georgia's greatest resource – our children."

So far it's unknown how the 500 new caseworkers, if the money for their hiring is approved, will be distributed or how many will come to Clayton or Henry counties.

"We're cautiously optimistic. We're really hopeful," said Chuck Fischer, deputy director for Clayton County DFCS.

While Clayton County has been seeing a reduction in CPS case load per caseworker, Fischer said, they are still above the recommended national standards of 14 to 17 cases per worker. Currently Clayton County's more than 30 case workers average 25 to 30 cases each.

Henry County's DFCS case workers are facing similar loads, said that agency's director Evelyn Norman, and the new caseworkers would be "absolutely needed."

"That (500 extra caseworkers) would be a 20 or 25 percent increase overall," Norman said. "I'm ecstatically happy."

Reducing the caseload will do more than just make her job easier and reduce the stress she and other caseworkers experience, Hodges said.

"It allows the case managers to do a more efficient job with a case because you can devote more time to it," Hodges said.

Each caseworker has 30 days to complete a case, and when they receive over 30 cases a month that can equal more than a case a day.

"That's almost how it is, which is impossible," Hodges said.

The high case loads affect other aspects of the system as well, such as Juvenile Court which hears the child deprivation cases DFCS investigates.

"They don't have enough resources so when they come to the hearing they're not ready, they can't be ready," Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske said. "So I'm having to continue cases and keep children in foster care."

Clayton County has managed to reduce its case load by the use of diversion programs, Fischer said. That involves taking referral and considering if they rise to the level of an investigation for deprivation or if they can be dealt with some other way.

For example, a child my come to school in dirty clothes, but that doesn't mean that the child should be separated from his or her parents.

"We look for other community resources or take from our volunteer fund," Fischer said. "Mom may try to do everything we can for these kids and it's just not enough."

In Henry County the good news is that the Henry County Commission has approved an expansion for the building on Henry Parkway.

"We're going to have twice the space. It's desperately needed," Norman said.