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Hall County DFCS office shrinks
Officials: Many cases diverted, caseloads manageable
Hall County’s DFCS attorney Bart Patterson, left, case manager Katie Bruner, center, and program administrator Cara Kitchen attend a hearing in Hall County Juvenile Court last week. The Hall County office’s staffing for child protective services has been reduced by about 30 percent since April 2008. - photo by Tom Reed

Hall County’s office for the state Division of Family and Children Services is about 30 percent smaller than it was two years ago, with fewer case managers, supervisors and fewer total positions either filled or vacant, according to public records.

But the staffing situation is not as dire as it was just a few months ago, a Hall County judge said. And while there are nine fewer case managers on the job then there were in April 2008, caseloads in the Hall County DFCS office largely appear to be manageable, an independent state monitor said.

“This is the best it’s been in months,” said Hall County Juvenile Court Mary Carden, who in September 2009 and again in January said the staffing of the local office was approaching crisis levels. “At one time, we were half of this, so it has come back a lot.”

According to documents provided by the Georgia Department of Human Services in response to an open records request made by the Times, in April 2008 there were 51 total positions slotted for supervisors and case managers in the Hall County DFCS office’s child protective services section, of which 14 were vacant.

As of the first of this month, there were 35 total positions slotted, with 10 vacancies. Some of the vacancies have remained open for nearly two years.

On the front line of child protective work in Hall County, there were 29 case managers in 2008 and 20 at the first of this month, plus three temporary positions. There were eight supervisors two years ago and there are five today.

According to the office of the Georgia Child Advocate, as of last week Hall County child protective services had 416 active cases.

“We are still at a point where statewide, most case managers manage a caseload of 30 cases or less, so I think that’s manageable,” said Melissa Carter, the Georgia Child Advocate.

Carter did say that one case manager in Hall County was handling 46 cases, which to her appeared excessive. But she noted that case assignments can vary according to the type of case and experience of the manager.

Carter’s position is appointed by the governor and is independent of the Department of Human Services. The office receives complaints, conducts research and monitors state services for needy children and families.

Carter said shrinking DFCS offices can’t be solely attributed to the mandated budget cuts all sectors of state agencies are experiencing, though they are a major factor.

In recent years, Georgia has diverted close to half of the neglect cases which in the past would have resulted in children being placed in foster care. By placing children temporarily with other relatives or friends until an investigation is completed and a case is resolved, or connecting families with community resources to keep the lights on or the pantry stocked, DFCS has seen a decrease of about 40 percent in the number of children in foster care, Carter said.

Fewer foster kids mean smaller caseloads.

“Staffing is only necessary, obviously, to the levels of which are justified by the volume of cases,” Carter said. “I think it’s a bit short-sighted to say the staffing levels have been decreased simply as a function of the budget. I think they’ve decreased as a function of the budget and as a function of a reduction in caseloads.”

Dena Smith, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, said any office that experiences high case volumes that could put children at risk can request additional case managers be brought in.

“We are constantly checking in with the regional directors to find out how they are managing their work, and if they need help,” Smith said.

According to DHS records, of the 10 vacant case manager and supervisor positions in Hall County, six have been open for more than a year.

Smith said there has never been a hiring freeze in place for essential positions in case management. New hires do, however, require authorization from either Assistant DHS Commissioner Mark Washington or his two deputy directors of field operations, according to a February 2009 memo obtained by The Times.

“You should not request to fill a vacancy in Child Welfare Services unless you can demonstrate that it is critical to maintaining basic child welfare services (very high caseloads, lack of coverage for a portion of the state, etc.),” Washington wrote.

Said Smith, “Nowhere in the memo does it say you cannot hire someone. It says there is a process to it.”

In the past three years, Hall County’s DFCS office has had three different directors. But Carden, one of the few local officials to raise concerns publicly, said she’s pleased to see the return of Jill Rice as interim director of the office. It is Rice’s second stint as director in Hall County.

“Jill Rice is excellent,” Carden said. “She’s very responsive, and she’s experienced. We were always happy with her management in the past.”

Rice, reached by phone last week, could not comment for this story, referring all questions to the DHS offices in Atlanta.

Carden said she has recently seen an increase in the number of cases brought into her court by DFCS, and a “tremendous improvement in how the cases are being handled in court. The investigations are better and the testimony is more thorough.”

The judge hopes the office has turned a corner.

“Although I think we could a use a lot more, we’ve had a dramatic improvement, and I think the children in our community are safer,” Carden said.

Carter, the child advocate, said the impact of sustained budget cuts will “at some point become critical for this field,” but she’s not ready to sound the alarms.

“By all indications, we’re doing this appropriately,” Carter said of the reduction in caseloads through diversion. “I do think DHS and DFCS is doing all they can to control their cuts and preserve their front line as best as possible. That being said, we’re getting to a point where the cuts have been sustained for so long, and continue to be so deep, that you’re only going to be able to exhaust the alternative for so long.”