If more social workers in Fayette County aren't hired soon, a child might be seriously hurt or die, those who work in child protection say.
On Friday, Fayette County Cabinet for Health and Family Services social workers tried to stage a "sick-out" to protest what they call unsafe working conditions, with too few workers and no more security officers at the two Lexington cabinet offices.
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But supervisors got wind of the plan and told workers Thursday that only those with notes from doctors would be excused. It was unclear how many workers came to work Friday.
No social worker wanted to speak on the record to the Herald-Leader for fear of being fired. But former social workers and those who work in child protection say that Fayette County desperately needs more social workers, security officers and more support in its offices.
"I haven't seen it this bad in the 15 years I've been doing this job," said Duane Osborne, an assistant Fayette County attorney who prosecutes abuse and neglect cases. "We do have some unbelievably ethical and talented workers in Fayette County. The problem is we don't have enough of them. They are stretched to the max and stressed to the max."
Chief Fayette Family Court Judge Jo Ann Wise said family court judges have seen a drop in the number of physical and sexual abuse cases referred by case workers to their courts.
"I've been doing this for 51/2 years, and this is definitely the worst that I've ever seen it," Wise said of the number of social workers. "I have the utmost respect for our social workers. It's a very dangerous position, but we just don't have enough of them."
Wise said that she and the county's three other family court judges have debated whether they should send a letter to the legislature, pleading the case for more social workers.
"It's just come to the point where we have to say something," Wise said. "We're worried that a child may be hurt or killed."
Cabinet officials say more social workers will be hired soon. But it's unclear how many social workers Fayette County is supposed to have. Numbers provided by county social workers show that 52 of the 84 positions are filled. Thirty-five are supposed to be for investigators, but only 17 are filled.
The cabinet determines the number of staff based on the number of cases each office has, and there is no cap or target number for positions, cabinet spokeswoman Vikki Franklin said. Fayette County case loads have actually decreased slightly in the past year to an average of about 19 per social worker, officials said.
Josh Begley, who was a child abuse investigator until June, said social workers are forced to close cases they typically wouldn't close because they do not have enough time to provide additional services. Begley said he was often asked to investigate abuse and neglect cases that he was not qualified or trained to investigate.
Begley said the number of social workers started to drop about a year ago. The people who left were never replaced. "If they would have hired more staff, I would have definitely stayed," Beg ley said. "They just do not give you the support that you need."
Gwenda Bond, also with the cabinet, said a host of problems created a delay in hiring earlier this year, including a wait for the budget to be finalized.
But many social workers and legislators are concerned that the cabinet has removed its security officers from the two Fayette County cabinet offices, and that there are no plans to replace those officers.
Social workers say they need security because they often deal with families in volatile situations.
The cabinet tried a similar move in its Louisville office but reversed its decision after workers protested.
Franklin said the cabinet does provide security as needed for the offices.
Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louis ville, who co-chairs the Health and Welfare Committee, said he was dismayed that the cabinet has removed security officers in Fayette County. Burch sponsored a bill last session that gave the cabinet $6 million that was to go toward strengthening security for social workers.
"Security should be our top priority," Burch said. "But the fact that they're understaffed does not surprise me one bit. Unless something drastic happens, no one pays attention."
Burch said he was surprised that conditions had gotten so bad in Lexington that the staff tried to walk out. He questioned why cabinet officials had let the situation escalate. But the legislature put the cabinet in a difficult spot by passing a lean budget, he said.
"This is the worst budget in my 34 years," Burch said. "We bear a lot of responsibility for what's happening, and we can't escape it."