Georgia agency would not fill vacant child safety, benefit eligibility positions

In this 2007 file photo, then Judge Tom Rawlings, led by Jessica Whitehead, a probation officer with the Department of Juvenile Justice, heads out of his Sandersville office after holding juvenile court on June 27, 2007. It was Rawlings' last court appearance in Sandersville before moving to his new position as the state's child advocate.
In this 2007 file photo, then Judge Tom Rawlings, led by Jessica Whitehead, a probation officer with the Department of Juvenile Justice, heads out of his Sandersville office after holding juvenile court on June 27, 2007. It was Rawlings' last court appearance in Sandersville before moving to his new position as the state's child advocate.

The Georgia agency that oversees child protection and federal benefit programs would hold open more than 200 vacant jobs under the budget recently unveiled by Gov. Brian Kemp.

Georgia Division of Family and Children Services Director Tom Rawlings told a panel of state lawmakers Thursday that it would leave open 127 child welfare positions and 105 in the department that handles eligibility for federal benefits that are currently vacant. The changes would take place in the 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The Department of Human Services board, which oversees DFCS, approved many of the proposed cuts in September.

Rawlings said the state’s new social benefits data management system — known as “Georgia Gateway” — has made it easier for workers to help those seeking federal services, such as welfare, Medicaid or food stamps, and more quickly determine if someone is eligible. Medicaid is the public health program that provides care to the poor and disabled.

“I feel confident that we are going to meet our obligations to get folks the benefits they need in a timely and accurate manner with the staff that we have,” he said.

The governor’s office in November authorized the transfer of about 200 Medicaid eligibility employees from the Department of Community Health to DHS to help vacant positions.

Rawlings said the child welfare positions that wouldn’t be filled are for supervisory roles.

“It’s the front-line workers who interact every day with the families of Georgia and protect children and we have to keep those guys so that they’re working hard and they don't have a caseload that’s too high,” Rawlings said.

Holding open the positions would account for about $8.1 million of the proposed $29 million in cuts to the human services budget in fiscal 2021. The governor’s spending plan orders state agencies to cut their budgets 4% this year and 6% next year.

State Rep. Al Williams, a Midway Democrat, said he was concerned by the number of vacant positions at the agency.

“Is it that you can't find anybody to work?” he asked.

Georgia Department of Human Services Commissioner Robyn Crittenden said the improving economy has made it hard to fill positions at the agency.

“Right now in our state we have a very low unemployment rate and people are able to find other opportunities where they live rather than work with us,” she said.