Originally created 05/12/00

Panel seeks alterations in DFACS



ATHENS, Ga. - Sweeping changes are needed throughout the state Division of Family and Children Services to protect Georgia's children from abuse and neglect, according to a study by a 16-member task force.

Since January, the Child Protective Services Task Force, appointed by the state Department of Human Resources, studied the workings of the 159 county DFACS offices and the statewide system as a whole.

The task force comprises representatives from business, religion, education and social work fields.

The task force began its work as DFACS came under increased scrutiny after the deaths of six children the state agency was working with.

In its report, released Tuesday, the task force recommended specific changes and chastised the state for its failure to adequately protect children.

The Board of Human Resources meets next week and will review the recommendations and discuss proposed changes, DHR spokesman Peter Lee said.

The task force's recommendations range from coordinating child-abuse prevention efforts in the community to hiring more and better-paid caseworkers.

"We're hoping this (report) is the kind of wake-up call that our government will respond to," said Gwen O'Looney, Clarke County DFACS director. "I'm thankful that they recognize that we need to make deep and long-lasting changes."

Heavy caseloads, low pay and constant employee turnover plague DFACS offices, according to agency employees.

Recommended changes include:

Increasing the number of caseworkers to levels consistent with national standards.

Compensating child protection workers with market-driven salary and benefit packages. Currently, Georgia DFACS workers receive an entry-level salary of $21,000 and rank among the lowest-paid nationally.

Increasing education requirements for caseworkers and providing in-depth training before and after they begin work.

The task force calls for an external audit of the agency, increasing accountability and giving the public more information about what work is being done to combat child abuse and neglect.

"If they did an outside audit, then they would have specific and exact recommendations to move into the General Assembly in 2001. Change will only occur if this issue stays alive in the General Assembly next year," Mrs. O'Looney said.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation reviewed case files of 13 children who died while in contact with DFACS in six Georgia counties - Clarke, Glynn, Bibb, Fulton, Cherokee and Sumter - from 1996 through 1998.