Georgia puts cheap pricetag on the lives of its children

I’ve covered Georgia politics and government for a long time now, and over a quarter of a century you see a lot of things change. You see politicians come and go, you see ambitions realized and dashed, you see yesterday’s obsessions and certainties abandoned in favor of new obsessions and certainties.

But you know what hasn’t changed? Georgia children supposedly under the watchful protection of the state continue to die from neglect and abuse in unacceptably high numbers, and we continue to pretend that this time, we’re going to fix it.

We don’t.

When I arrived here back in 1990, Georgians were scandalized by the number of children identified to the state as potential victims of abuse and neglect who were turning up dead. Naturally, promises were made to fix it. Yet that same scandal has popped up as a recurring major scandal every four or five years since then, and remains a scandal today, some 26 years later. Why is that?

It’s not as if we don’t change things. When we discover that children under the supposed protection of the Division of Family and Children Services have been starved to death, beaten to death or subjected to terrible sexual abuse, sometimes we’ve responded to it as a failure of leadership or frontline workers, so we’ve made constant personnel changes.

At other times, we’ve blamed it on training failures or organizational flaws or outdated policy. So we’ve revised the training, revamped the organization and updated policy, and a few years later we once again realize that too many children are still dying in numbers and situations that are heartbreaking.

So if we make all those changes and the problems still persist, doesn’t logic tell you to look at something even more basic than personnel or training or policies, something inherent in the system over time?

For example, maybe it’s because we’re too cheap to hire enough caseworkers. As AJC reporter Alan Judd pointed out earlier this month, DFCS has 20 percent fewer caseworkers than it did a decade ago, even though the number of abuse and neglect cases is soaring. The number of Georgia children living in poverty has also jumped, from 489,000 in 2006 to 647,000 in 2014.

As a result, caseworkers have far more cases than they can conscientiously handle. Back in the 2000 iteration of this scandal, state officials promised to bring caseloads down to the recommended national norm, yet 16 years later, the caseload level in Georgia will remain well above recommended levels even if legislators approve the hiring of an additional 148 caseworkers statewide.

We also expect those caseworkers to perform as professionals even though we don’t pay them that way. The state is now advertising for DFCS social service case managers, requiring both a bachelor’s degree and relevant experience. In Fulton County, the pay scale is from $28,000 to $34,000. Not surprisingly, that creates major turnover problems in a field in which continuity is critical.

Back in 2000, state officials acknowledged that children were dying because high caseloads and low pay were causing an unacceptably high turnover rate of 39 percent. Today, 16 years later, it is 36 percent.

In short, we have a pretty good idea by now where the problems lie. But then again, we always have.

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