Politics & Government

Kentucky child-protection workers describe hostile work environment

FRANKFORT — State child-protection workers applauded Gov. Steve Beshear for requesting an additional $21 million to hire more front-line social workers in his budget but told lawmakers Wednesday that more needs to be done to improve morale and working conditions.

"They are the most honorable, hard-working people I know and they are breaking down," said Patricia Preg liasco, who works in child protection in Jefferson County. "Workers are leaving or trying to leave every day."

Jefferson County child protection workers told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee that additional staff would help with high case loads — which they said are inching past 50 per worker. The workers also said they are toiling under hostile work conditions and are being reprimanded and demoted for failing to close old investigations of child abuse and neglect, yet are being asked to investigate new cases.

On top of that, they are frequently told that because of budget constraints there is no overtime available. If they take their work home and try to complete it, they are reprimanded again, social workers told the committee.

As part of his budget proposal, Beshear asked for $21 million over two years to hire 300 additional social workers — about 100 of those positions would be for child-protection workers. The remaining positions would go to other parts of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services that also have seen increasing caseloads.

Beshear announced his proposal Tuesday night during his budget address. The legislature has until mid-April to pass a two-year budget.

Pregliasco praised the move but said Jefferson County alone needs an additional 30 social workers to bring it to the same staffing level of five years ago.

Teresa James, acting commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, which oversees child protection, said caseloads for child-protection workers have gone up as the department lost $80 million during the past four years because of budget cuts.

Beshear has said that the average worker caseload is now 20 and that he hoped hiring additional staff would bring that number down to 18.

But Pregliasco and other social workers said they know of no one who has only 20 cases.

James said the state does use some social workers who are administrators when it averages the caseload per worker. James said the cabinet also does not count overdue cases — or cases that should be closed — when it calculates caseloads.

Republican Sen. Julie Denton of Louisville, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, asked that James provide the committee with an average caseload number that includes overdue cases and excludes workers who do not have cases.

"If the workers are getting written up on past dues, we need to understand that, especially when we're working on the budget," Denton said. "... We need more money for front-line workers."

James also said cabinet leaders have never told regional supervisors that they cannot authorize overtime. However, overtime does need to be approved in advance, she said.

Pregliasco said overdue cases are causing social workers to be demoted or reprimanded. Those cases should be counted in total workload, she said.

Tamara Williams, a child-protection worker assigned to investigations in Jefferson County, said after Wednesday's meeting that she was demoted five pay grades, to a clerical support clerk, because she got behind in closing old investigations. She is appealing the disciplinary measure, she said.

"But the cabinet continues to subpoena me to testify in court hearings," she said.

Williams said she was working on 30 to 40 cases at a time. "There is no human person who can keep up with it," she said.

Social workers said they have been intimidated by regional supervisors and told that they cannot speak out about working conditions in Jefferson County.

Denton said she wanted social workers to work in an atmosphere that is "empowering rather than intimidating."

James agreed to meet with Jefferson County social workers to discuss the problems and possible solutions to lessen the workload. Denton said James also has said she wanted to know which supervisors were trying to intimidate social workers.