A Hall County judge says the local office of the Division of Family and Children Services has reached a crisis in staffing levels that could endanger the welfare of children, a contention that state officials deny.
Juvenile Court Judge Mary Carden said numerous case worker positions lost to high turnover have not been filled in the Hall County DFCS office, creating unmanageable caseloads for remaining employees and a "truly dangerous situation."
Carden said DFCS is the gatekeeper for child abuse and neglect cases, determining who needs referral for services and what children need to be immediately taken into protective custody.
"It’s like the emergency room at the hospital," Carden said. "They triage, they figure out who’s got the cold and who’s having the heart attack, and they try to deal with the cases accordingly. Unfortunately right now, a lot of folks are not making it into the emergency room at all. And in a situation like that, you’re going to have some misses."
John Wilson, the director of the Hall County DFCS office, referred all questions and requests for data to the Department of Human Services in Atlanta.
The Times sought information from DHS for three days this week before being granted an interview late Friday afternoon.
DHS spokesman David Noel said while he didn’t have the exact numbers, the judge’s contention that staffing at the Hall County DFCS office had dropped from 35 employees to 15 was not accurate.
Noel also said DFCS has not imposed a hiring freeze preventing it from filling vacant positions.
"Obviously you have vacancies, but that’s from attrition and they’re addressing that as quickly as they can," Noel said. "Case workers and supervisors are critical positions, and every effort is being made to fill critical positions."
Carden said she noticed a decrease in the number of new deprivation cases being filed by DFCS in her court this year. According to Hall County Juvenile Court numbers, there have been 95 deprivation cases through Thursday, compared with 140 last year. The court is on pace to have 126 new deprivation cases filed this year, about a 10 percent decrease from last year.
Noel said there is no correlation between DFCS staffing and the number of case filings.
"They are investigating every case they’re supposed to investigate," Noel said, noting that the Hall County staff has a 100 percent timely response rate, which means case managers responded to a referral of possible child deprivation within 48 hours. "Regardless of staffing levels, they’re responding to every case."
Noel said DHS just approved 130 new positions across the state, including one for Hall County.
"We are looking at the whole picture in each county and each region, and what the responses and caseloads are, the quality of the work, the timeliness of the investigation, and doing all of this during a budget crisis situation," Noel said.
"We are going to continue to monitor and assess the need for critical hires to assure investigations continue with high quality. Child safety remains the top priority, even with this budget situation."
Carden questioned whether state leadership "even recognize the problem’s as bad as it is."
"I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have any cuts in this area," Carden said. "I just think that cuts ought to be looked at in terms of their effect."