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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Cuts leave fewer social workers

Last spring, after a series of high-profile child deaths, Gov. Christine Gregoire ordered social workers to respond more quickly to reports of abuse and neglect.

State officials say they stripped administrative positions and moved more workers into the field to conduct face-to-face interviews and monthly checkups of vulnerable children.

Yet as the year ends, dozens of field positions across the state remain unfunded, including about 14 jobs in Eastern Washington.

“That puts a lot of pressure on the system,” said Ken Kraft, regional administrator for the Department of Children and Family Services in Spokane. “If I could fill those, the majority of those would be line staff positions. They would all be dedicated to field work to reduce caseloads.”

Holly Armstrong, a spokeswoman for Gregoire’s office, said the governor recognized the problem; however, Armstrong declined to say whether the governor’s budget would provide additional funding for the positions. The budget will be released next week.

“Everyone wants to make sure that kids are safe,” Armstrong said. “It’s just a matter of how you get there.”

Officials with the Children’s Administration said they could not say precisely how many positions were unfunded. However, data released Friday by the Department of Social and Health Services estimated that the agency was about 54 positions under its state allotment – a number that is established based on population and caseloads.

In Eastern Washington’s region – a huge geographic area that stretches from Whitman County to the Canadian border – the state reduced the budget by $3.1 million, including about $1.5 million from foster care, Kraft said.

Carol Felton, director of field operations for the Children’s Administration, said her office had worked to ensure that the agency was hiring as many social workers as possible while trying to scale back on administrative costs.

“We went through and scrubbed our positions,” Felton said. “We put as many people as we can on the front line.”

In January, the death of 7-year-old Tyler DeLeon sparked concern when state officials learned that a social worker had not visited the boy in the last days of his life – despite a report of bruises on his face nine days before his death. DeLeon died of severe dehydration on Jan. 13.

Gregoire directed social workers to respond within 24 hours in emergency cases and within 72 hours in “non-emergent” cases where the child did not appear to be at risk of immediate harm.

In a report this fall, state officials found that in the past year the number of cases handled by the typical social worker decreased, indicating that employees had more time to work with each child. But the workers have greater responsibility with each case, so they’re actually working harder.

Meanwhile, the number of children in emergency situations who were seen within 24 hours of a call to the hotline jumped nearly 20 percent to about 88 percent of all cases.

The report raised concern that the increased demand on staff could drain morale, increase overtime costs and result in more staff errors. The report urged regions to fill vacancies as quickly as possible.

Bernie Ryan, executive staff director for the Children’s Administration, conceded that regions will not be funded to their allotted number of social workers.

“There are some positions that we will not fill,” Ryan said. “There is an allotment above that, but we are not being funded to fill that allotment.”

At the end of another tumultuous year for the Children’s Administration, state leaders continue to struggle over how to balance the agency’s fiscal management with its responsibility to protect thousands of vulnerable children.

The announcement last spring that the agency faced a $12 million budget shortfall led to a shakeup within the Children’s Administration. Agency chief Uma Ahluwalia resigned, as state officials cut funding to programs that provided support services to children and families.

Other cuts roiled the child welfare system in Eastern Washington. In May, the region slashed nearly $1 million in contracts with local agencies and sliced administrative costs, such as employee travel and equipment purchases. Last month, regional officials drastically reduced funding to two prominent Spokane programs that serve abused and neglected children.

“All expenditures in Children’s are being closely scrutinized,” said Connie Morlin, area administrator for Foster Care Licensing. “In over 25 years with the agency, I’ve never seen a budget crisis as serious as it is now.”

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