Politics & Government

Measure to help social workers is altered

FRANKFORT - A Senate committee yesterday stripped funding from a bill to improve social worker safety, and deleted a provision that would have allowed the state to hire more than 100 social workers and staff members.

Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, who sponsored the House bill, said the move gutted the bill.

"They made it into a social worker abuse bill," he said. "The Senate has absolutely lost their brains over there."

Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, who offered the new version of the Boni Bill, denied the charge.

"We didn't take the money out," Williams said. "We allowed more money to be spent on protection of social workers than the House does."

The revised bill now goes before the full Senate and then back to the House for concurrence. But how it will fare there is far from certain. Burch said yesterday he would rather have no bill than the one approved by the Senate committee, which he described as a "piece of trash."

The measure as approved by the Senate does not contain any new funding. It allows the Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Mark Birdwhistell to take money from other programs and request up to $1 million from the governor.

Williams said that ability to move money around would provide more funding than the $4.8 million appropriated by the House, because the cabinet has a multibillion dollar budget.

Last month, when the bill was before a House committee and it appeared no new money would be appropriated, Birdwhistell said he could not find adequate funds in his budget for the problems that exist.

Yesterday, however, he praised the flexibility the Senate version of the bill offered, and denied that finding money in the existing budget, which he described as "extremely lean," would be a problem.

"Even if the initial funding may look a little less than what came out of the House version, the immediacy that this affords me will allow me to more quickly address the safety issues," Birdwhistell said.

House Bill 362 is named after Boni Frederick, a Henderson social worker who was slain last fall while supervising a visit between a toddler and his biological mother.

The House measure would have given the cabinet $4.8 million to hire more than 100 social workers and staff members and to open visitation centers for foster children and their biological parents.

It also created a blue-ribbon panel to examine everything from salaries to operations and procedures.

The Senate version does not contain money for staff or visitation centers. It directs the cabinet to assess safety problems at regional offices and fix them, and to hire police officers to accompany social workers if needed. Instead of a blue-ribbon panel, it directs Birdwhistell to create a study group focused on safety.

"What we're going to do is have a complete security check of each one of the offices and authorize them to spend all the money necessary to secure those offices," Williams said.

Both versions of the bill give social workers access to criminal-background checks and require them to report threats.

Hank Cecil, of the Kentucky Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, who had advocated more money to hire more social workers, was stunned by the changes made in the Senate. He noted that Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher had originally asked for more than $18 million to hire more than 300 social workers and staff members.

"They went against their own governor," he said.