Fayette County

Fayette social work staff to grow, state officials pledge

More child protection social workers will be hired soon to help Fayette County's understaffed Cabinet for Health and Family Services office, officials said Tuesday.

There was a delay in the hiring of more social workers at the beginning of the year, but more hires are planned, said Patricia Wilson, commissioner of the state Department for Community Based Services, which includes child protection. But Wilson said it was impossible to say how many would be hired or when.

"It's a fluid number," Wilson said Tuesday. "The positive news is that we have been able to — for about the past three weeks — look at accelerated ways to move ahead and fill these positions."

Last week, social workers in Fayette County had planned a "sick-out" to protest what they say are unsafe working conditions — too few workers to investigate child abuse and neglect cases, no security officers at Fayette County's two offices and a host of other problems. But many reported for work on Friday after they were told that only workers with doctors' notes would be approved for sick leave.

Current and former workers and others who work in child protection said the number of social workers in Fayette County has reached levels so low that they are afraid a child might be hurt or killed if something isn't done soon.

Wilson said there was a delay in filling positions at the beginning of the year because of concerns about the budget, federal funding and the number of expected retirements.

Current and former social workers said Tuesday that the reason why so many staff members have left over the past 18 months is because of a reorganization of the cabinet under former Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration. The new management has led to an exodus of many longtime employees, they said.

Patricia Williams worked in child protection for 12 years before leaving her job two months ago because of ongoing problems in the Fayette County office, she said.

"I've been with the cabinet through lean times," Williams said. "It's never been this bad. The question really is: Why would employees feel so horrible about their jobs that they would go to the extreme of staging a sick-out? It's because there are so many problems with management there."

Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, who chairs the House Health and Welfare Committee, said Friday that the legislature was to blame in part for the staff shortages because it passed one of the leanest budgets in his more than 30-year tenure in Frankfort. But the cabinet also shares the blame.

"It shouldn't get to the point that your social workers want to walk out," Burch said.

Mary Houlihan, who investigated child fatalities until earlier this year, said that, after four years, she quit the job she loved, because she was so frustrated with cabinet management policies. She wasn't given the time to do her job, she said.

"I've just never experienced the amount of utter ineptitude with some of the policies," Houlihan said. "It was just illogical choice after illogical choice."

Workers who have stayed say they are concerned that those left behind do not have the experience they need to do the job.

"The cases that we're getting are more difficult and complex than we had five years ago," said Doug Abrams, a supervisor over investigations who has worked for the cabinet for 16 years. "We have a lot of very good young investigators who are very capable, but it takes time to become comfortable when you're doing these types of investigations."

Wilson said the reorganization happened before she became commissioner and said she has not heard from the Fayette County staff that there are problems with management there.

But Williams said she has sent Wilson several e-mails about the situation in Fayette County.

Wilson said she was not sure whether she had received the e-mails. "I'm going to be inclined to listen to people who are currently on the job," Wilson said. "I do believe that there are two sides to every story."

But, when asked whether the cabinet has plans to talk to Fayette County social workers about the issues there, Wilson said that employees have ways of communicating problems and concerns.

"I think there are ways for us to have communications with staff so that we can address those questions and those issues," she said.

Wilson said she understands employees' frustrations with how long it has taken to fill positions.

"I understand that they would like these positions filled yesterday, and I wish they would have been, too," Wilson said. "We are moving as rapidly as we can."