WASHINGTON – The state Department of Human Resources reached “a milestone” when it boosted the number of child welfare caseworkers above a state-mandated minimum of 1,891 early this year, backers say.
While there is still work to be done — caseloads remain too high in some counties and salaries here lag behind some other states — advocates greeted the new, higher staffing levels as “an awesome thing.”
“Now the work begins,” said Jim McComb, the executive director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth. With the new hires, he said, advocates can demand “95 percent of children getting services and rational explanations for the 5 percent” who are not.
Children’s advocates have been concerned about the number of child welfare caseworkers for years and the General Assembly in 1998 passed the Child Welfare Workforce Initiative, calling for more caseworkers.
After the Department of Human Resources repeatedly failed to meet hiring goals, the legislature set deadlines for the department. It missed its targets on Oct. 1 and Jan. 1, when it was supposed to have all 1,891 workers on board.
State officials said they topped that goal “shortly after” the first of the year, hiring 150 workers in a six-month span to get over the top. The department has slightly exceeded the goal, with about 1,900 caseworkers and supervisors now on the payroll, said Department of Human Resources spokesman Norris West.
West said that meeting the quota — an arbitrary number picked by the General Assembly — brings the department closer to the Child Welfare League of America’s recommended ratio of caseworker to cases.
The league says that a child protective service worker should have no more than 12 to 17 cases at a time, said spokeswoman Joyce Johnson.
Maryland officials could not provide a specific caseload for their caseworkers, since the number can vary based on the type of case being handled, such as a foster-care care or an abuse case, and location. Some counties still have shortages, despite the increased hiring, according to a legislative analyst in the Department of Legislative Services.
But West said the state is getting close to the league’s numbers.
And activists, social workers, and legislators who pushed for more caseworkers said they are happy about that.
“(It) is an awesome thing,” said Gisele Ferretto, a licensed social worker and an official with the Maryland chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. “We had vacancies in those positions for over three years . . . those were critical positions to be vacant for that long.”
West said the state worked with universities and schools of social work, and advertised for potential employees to close the gap. He said he is confident that the new hires are qualified, even though they were hired quickly.
“We didn’t just scour downtown Baltimore for anybody,” West said.
Now, said Ferretto and McComb, the department must do even more to lure social workers to Maryland. Ferretto said Virginia and Washington, D.C, pay their social workers more than Maryland, for example, so the state frequently loses social workers who studied in the state.
“We are training them and then they are going to other places,” she said.
West said that the department is working to make Maryland more attractive to social workers. It is currently working on an initiative is to give its social workers a more flexible schedule, for example.
West also pointed to Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s fiscal 2006 budget, which includes $2.2 million to hire new caseworkers, according to administration documents.
“The governor recognized the importance of putting children first. He has been very involved in working with us to make sure we have adequate training, tolls and resources for caseworkers,” West said.
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