DFACS orders overtime to speed up child safety investigations

ANDY MILLER

June 25, 2014 

The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services has ordered mandatory overtime for agency investigators to reduce the state’s backlog in child protection investigations.

DFACS interim Director Bobby Cagle has ordered the minimum eight hours overtime per week until the backlog is eliminated. Investigators will be paid at a “time and a half” rate.

DFACS now has more than 3,300 overdue child protective services investigations. The number is about 48 percent of the state’s current caseload, the agency said.

“Each of these overdue cases represents a potential risk for vulnerable children in our state, and this requires swift action on our part,” Cagle said in a statement. “We must make sure these children are in a safe situation as soon as possible.”

DFACS said that under agency policy, investigations into child safety should be completed within 45 days, unless the circumstances call for more time.

Bibb County DFACS Director Martha Blue said her staff has 26 child safety investigations that are overdue, plus 27 family support cases. Child safety cases are supposed to be completed within 45 days, while family support cases have a 60-day window.

Blue said she has about five cases that have gone beyond 90 days. However, she said that her staff monitors child protection cases closely.

“We monitor those cases daily,” she said. “It’s our job to make sure we keep the children safe.”

Blue said she has 10 investigators, but she also will use other staff members until Bibb County has caught up.

Susan Boatwright, a spokeswoman for the state DFACS office, said the effort to catch up is statewide. Once a county has caught up on its paperwork, investigators may be assigned to help another county that is still behind.

Boatwright said every time DFACS is called about a case, the agency begins its investigations usually within 24 hours. It’s once the case has been opened that DFACS staff has fallen behind in closing out investigations.

Last month, there were reports that some metro Atlanta DFACS caseworkers have caseloads of about 100, an unusually high number.

The Child Welfare League of America recommends caseloads of 12 to 17 families per worker in child protection cases. Caseloads of 100 for child welfare workers “are extraordinarily high and entirely untenable,” CWLA spokeswoman Linda Spears said.

DFACS said that increased levels of reporting, as well as a greater focus on the quality of investigations, have led to the large number of pending cases across the state.

Reports to DFACS about child abuse and neglect have steadily increased over the last year, from an average of 6,600 reports per month to an average of 8,400 reports monthly. While the number of reports has risen, staffing levels have remained “relatively static,’’ the agency said.

DFACS said in May that in 2009 there were an average of 2,228 front-line social service workers. In March 2014, DFACS had 1,633 of these caseworkers.

Gov. Nathan Deal has pledged funding for 500 additional caseworkers over the next three years. DFACS has hired the first 175 case managers and is working to fill existing vacancies across the state.

Karl Lehman, CEO of Childkind, a nonprofit helping families caring for children with special health care and developmental needs, said recently that the General Assembly must fully fund Child Protective Services.

Through budget cuts and the loss of other funds, “the ability of the state to (operate) Child Protective Services has been decimated,” Lehman said.

Cagle is seeking to safely complete 95 percent of overdue investigations by July 31. Cases that involve young children, allegations of abuse or families who have had multiple contacts with the agency will be given priority.

Cagle became interim director of DFACS on June 16.

Last year, the deaths of 10-year-old Emani Moss and 12-year-old Eric Forbes mobilized child advocates and lawmakers into proposing changes in the system.

Gov. Deal has created a council to study Georgia’s child welfare system and come up with ways to protect children better. And a pilot program for privatization will occur in two regions of the state.

Blue said it’s not a good thing to have any cases pending, but that she and her staff are being diligent.

“Comparatively, (Bibb County’s numbers) are not a lot — but one (overdue) case is too many,” she said.

Telegraph writer Phillip Ramati contributed to this report.

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