12-day shutdown of state social service agency protested

Advocates say children could be more at risk

Plans to shut down the state social services agency for 12 days could leave children in the system at risk and needy families out in the cold on those days, advocates said Friday.

Department of Human Services Commissioner B.J. Walker said the agency shutdowns, coming in response to budget strains, will start next Friday and occur through June.

The plan to furlough the agency’s 9,000 workers comes in response to a statewide order by Gov. Sonny Perdue to cut 5 percent from the department’s spending plan.

The DHS handles state social services such as applications for Medicaid, food stamps and family assistance. The agency also handles child welfare services such as monitoring children in foster care and troubled families with a history of child abuse or neglect.

Agency spokeswoman Dena Smith said despite the closures, staffers will be available to receive calls on the abuse and neglect of children and the elderly.

Still, some social service advocates say children in the system will be more at risk because there won’t be caseworkers checking on foster kids and troubled families that have an open case with the agency.

“There will be fewer bodies taking care of the vulnerable citizens of Georgia,” said Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children.

He added, “Caseworkers are not going to be going out into the communities and homes and putting an eyeball on these kids and making sure they’re safe.”

He worried about how the furloughed days would affect ongoing investigations into child abuse and neglect, especially in situations in which a child needs to be removed from a dangerous home.

Smith, the DHS spokeswoman, said children will not be at risk on these days. Caseworkers slated to visit a child that day will simply visit another day, she said.

Smith said the agency will implement the same emergency reporting system for abuse and neglect used when it closes for a weekend or holiday.

Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children, said she worries that these missed days will place a greater burden on agency staffers when they return to the job.

Some advocates also worry that families needing Medicaid, food stamps or family assistance will not be able to apply or receive counseling on these services during those days.

It can be difficult for people in need to get to a DHS office, often requiring a trip by bus or a ride from friends, Willis said.

“For these people, it is an emergency,” she said.

Smith said people can apply for food stamps online at the agency’s Web site: www.dhs.georgia.gov.

Walker said the furloughed days will allow the agency to avoid laying off 500 staffers.

Perdue has ordered all state agencies to cut 5 percent from their spending plans to help fill a $900 million budget shortfall. The DHS cuts would save $23 million this fiscal year.

Human Services workers had about a dozen furlough days over the past year, in which some of the work force took off, but this would be the first time the agency shuts down completely on these days.

DHS closings

The Department of Human Services will close its offices on the following days:

Friday, Sept. 4

Friday, Oct. 9

Wednesday, Nov. 25

Thursday, Dec. 31

Friday, Jan. 8

Friday, Feb. 5

Friday, March 5

Friday, April 2

Friday, May 7

Friday, May 21

Friday, June 4

Friday, June 18