FRANKFORT — State workers assigned to protect vulnerable children and adults would have to earn social-work degrees and be licensed under a bill approved Thursday by a House committee.
House Bill 237 would up the level of education and professionalism among frontline caseworkers and supervisors who deal with child abuse and neglect and other types of cases, said the sponsor, Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington.
Westrom said being licensed would increase accountability among caseworkers, because the state social-work board could impose sanctions on the license of a worker who did something wrong.
It also would protect workers from supervisors who tell them to do something illegal or improper, allowing them to refuse for fear of running afoul of the Kentucky Board of Social Work, Westrom told members of the House Health and Welfare Committee.
Westrom said she has heard from state caseworkers who are often asked to do things that are wrong, such as falsifying records, not providing complete answers to judges and not fully complying with a judge's order.
Five former frontline workers from one county — which she didn't name — signed statements saying they left the job because they were asked to do things that were wrong, Westrom said.
"We also have to make sure that illegal actions are not taking place in our trenches," Westrom told the committee.
Jill Midkiff, a spokeswoman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said officials there would never instruct or advise employees to do anything unethical or illegal.
The committee voted 12 to 0 to approve the bill.
Under the measure, frontline workers — such as people who investigate reports of child abuse and neglect — and many supervisors would have to become licensed by July 2014 if they already have a degree in social work, or by July 2019 if they don't.
Of the 1,500 frontline workers at the cabinet, half have degrees in social work and half have degrees in other fields, such as psychology, said Westrom, who has a master's degree in social work.
If the measure passes, those 750 workers who don't have a degree in social work would have to get either a bachelor's or master's degree in the field if they wanted to stay with the cabinet. That degree is required to be licensed as a social worker.
Westrom told the committee only 90 of the cabinet employees with social-work degrees are licensed.
New frontline workers hired after the bill took effect would have to be licensed as well. The provisions would apply to workers who provide child- and adult-protective services and foster-care and juvenile services.
Shawnte West, a cabinet employee who is pursuing a master's in social work, told the committee she supports the bill.
"It would professionalize the work that we do," West said.
However, she said caseworkers already are overworked because of high caseloads, and raised a concern that the requirement for current employees to get a new degree would add to their strain, and be costly as well.
West said she benefits from a stipend to help pay for her education, but that budget cuts mean only one cabinet employee per county can get the stipend.
HB 237 directs the cabinet to find a way to make the most of federal funds available to help current employees get master's degrees.
The Kentucky chapter of the National Association of Social Workers supports HB 237 because it would create a "standard of professionalism," said Jordan Wildermuth, the executive director.
Midkiff said the cabinet values education and licensure, but is concerned the bill could have unintended consequences.
"As written, the bill could place the burden of class time, travel, tuition and licensure costs on state social workers who already work demanding and stressful jobs," Midkiff said.
Rep. Brent Housman, R-Paducah, voted for the bill but asked beforehand if it could ultimately mean fewer state social workers in the field, in part because they could get higher pay elsewhere.
Westrom said that will depend on how serious the legislature is about funding protection for vulnerable people.
It's wonderful to want children to get a good education and achieve all they can, but there is a more basic consideration, Westrom said.
"We want to make sure they live."