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Editorial: Georgia provides help for the helpers
State budget provides much-needed funds to retain child caseworkers, foster parents
0504EDITORIAL
Gov. Nathan Deal poses with Department of Human Services staff caseworkers, DHS Director Bobby Cagle, DHS Commissioner Robyn A. Crittenden and state Sen. Renee Unterman after signing a 2018 state budget Monday that provides an average 19 percent pay raise to children’s services caseworkers.

One of the state’s most difficult tasks may have gotten a little bit easier.

The $25 billion state budget signed Monday by Gov. Nathan Deal includes necessary new spending for education, law enforcement and transportation infrastructure, all vital and agreed-upon needs in a state that continues to grow in population, prosperity and influence.

Included in that budget is additional money for a less-discussed but equally crucial need: Georgia’s child welfare services. The budget will increase pay for caseworkers and reimbursement for foster parents, responsibilities that have left many scrambling to meet a growing need.

For years, the Department of Human Services and its member agencies throughout the state have struggled to maintain the necessary staffing of caseworkers to handle an increased number of children coming under state custody. Several high-profile cases earlier this decade put a spotlight on the problem, as did The Times’ Broken Bonds series on the foster care crisis faced in Hall County in 2014.

The problem has been simple to define but hard to solve. Child welfare caseworkers in many areas of the state simply are overwhelmed by the number of children they serve. As the number of children from troubled homes increases, the availability of foster homes, though more in number, has not been able to keep pace. That means many children are relocated miles from their original homes, sometimes on the other side of the state, forcing caseworkers to travel those distances to check on their needs. In addition, caseworkers have to spend a good deal of time in court processing child welfare cases, a time-consuming part of their already-slammed schedules.

As a result, agencies have had a difficult time recruiting and retaining qualified caseworkers. More positions were added a few years ago when the crisis became more evident, but filling those jobs remains a challenge. In many cases, qualified applicants go through training only to find the workload and demands too great, driving them to other jobs after a short time and leaving the state both short of staff and out the money invested in their training. The annual turnover rate is 32 percent; something had to give lest the state wind up abandoning children who need help the most.

The budget will provide $25.9 million to allow Division of Family and Children Services to raise caseworker salaries by an average of 19 percent from the current starting salary of $28,000 per year. While that won’t ease the stress and workload they endure, it will make it more worth their while and perhaps keep more of them on board longer to work through the heavy caseloads and ease the burden they all face.

In addition, the budget will add $10.7 million to increase the per diem for DFCS foster families. These parents volunteer their time and homes to care for children in desperate situations, many with special needs and developmental problems. They invest their own family budgets toward that end, but need a bit more help to keep them on board. There currently are 55 foster homes in Hall County, 24 working with DFCS and 31 with private placement agencies.

For each child younger than 5, a family receives about $15 per day, which should go up about $10 per day starting July 1; the raise will be $5 per day for relatives who take on children and families working with private agencies.

Both increases in salary and per diem for those shouldering this load are welcome and needed. The state can’t turn its back on children from homes racked by abuse, neglect or substance addiction. With the proper resources and help, many can still find their way toward nurturing permanent homes and productive lives.

It’s worth noting that with half of the state budget devoted to education, along with an additional $516 million in the new budget, it’s just as important to care for children who face difficult situations at home after the school bell rings.

But the state has more to do in this area. State legislators sought to rewrite its decades-old adoption code to streamline that process in the last session, but that bill was hijacked by a lawmaker attempting an end run that would allow private agencies to deny adoption to same-sex couples. After the bill passed the House 165-0, his amendment kept it from coming to a vote in the Senate, with lawmakers concerned over the backlash such a bill could cause, as similar issues have in other states.

However one feels about same-sex adoption, the better strategy would have been to pass an adoption code reform bill, then address the other issue in a separate bill. It should receive its own debate and vote, not be attached as an amendment that drags down a plan that received consensus bipartisan support. So now, as a result of political grandstanding, adoption agencies and prospective parents are left facing the same obstacles as before.

Another bill that was passed by the Senate but stalled in the House would have given foster parents more help from volunteers by streamlining the certification process. As it is now, volunteers have to be trained and approved through different procedures depending on the agency involved. It would have been another way to boost child welfare without adding to the costs simply by making the process a bit easier.

Georgia can’t claim to be a forward-thinking state that welcomes all if it can’t do right by its most vulnerable citizens who aren’t cared for properly. Budget increases for caseworkers and foster families are a good start, but money alone won’t fix the problem. State leaders now need to take additional steps to ensure family services at all levels can meet the growing needs of their communities.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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