Experts say woes due to lace of funds

Published 5:15 pm Thursday, July 19, 2007

Bill M. Brister, PhD of Finance is the Plaintiff’s fiscal expert in the case Olivia Y. et al v. Haley Barbour et al, the children’s rights case that is in a potential settlement agreement. Brister submitted an expert report in February, 2006 which delved deeply into Mississippi Department of Humans Services’ (MDHS) budget for child welfare. Until the settlement is finalized, Mississippi Department of Human Services director, Donald Taylor has no comment.

“Dr. Brister’s report is a thorough analysis of the historical lack of funding to MDHS in the Division of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS),” said Melody McAnally of Bradley Arant Rose and White LLP in Jackson. That is the law firm handling the case for the children in foster care in Mississippi.

Brister cites several fiscal reports published by MDHS including a comparison of how Mississippi rates against the other states in the Union. “The Title IV-E,” he wrote in the February, 2006 report, “and the (Title) IV-B are the principal sources of Federal funds dedicated for child welfare activities. Other Federal programs, such as Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) and Temporary Assistance of Needy Families (TANF) are also used for child welfare purposes. Mississippi has failed to maximize its Federal funding streams, and instead spends approximately $7 million or 41 percent of its allocated State funds without securing any Federal matching funds.”

He goes on to add that in 2005, Mississippi had rated the highest for available matching funds of Medicaid matching (77 percent), yet did not capitalize upon that high rating for securing the federal funds.

“A major factor that contributes to MDHS’s inability to maximize Federal funds, notwhithstanding Mississippi high matching rate, is that the State has the lowest Title IV-E Foster Care eligibility rate in the nation. Because eligibility is based upon income levels, and given that Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation, one would expect the State to have one of the highest eligibility rates in the nation. But MDHS has displayed a lack of organizational capacity to document the Title IV-E eligibility for children who would otherwise be eligible,” Brister wrote in the executive summary of his report.

Brister highlights the erroneous federal funding forecasts that MDHS provides to the Mississippi Legislature, stating, “These inaccurate forecasts posed the risk that budgetary decision-makers would conclude that DFCS budgetary shortfalls would be alleviated by substantial increases in future Federal funding, thereby reducing the need for them to act through budgetary increases or stricter oversight.”

Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) documented the need to hire 500 to 700 additional social workers so that case loads would be reduced to a manageable level to within nationally recognized standards. However, Brister’s report asserts, “MDHS did not include this information in its budget requests to the Legislature and, thereby, failed to communicate the full scope, urgency, and critical nature of the situation.”

Another report provided by MDHS backs up what Brister is reporting. In 2006, MDHS requested the assistance of the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) to evaluate the policies and procedures that were in place as well as the organization’s structure, caseloads, workflow, and case management. The purpose was to discover the problems and get recommendations on how to fix them.

Charlene Ingram of Erial, NJ who has a Master’s in Social Work, and Sue Steib of Jackson, La. who has a Doctorate in Social Work conducted the study of DFCS, and wrote the report submitted in March, 2006 which is available for viewing on the web at www.MDHS.state.ms.us.

Among other things they noted, lack of funding was found to be a key to the lack of qualified caseworkers. The report said,

“When asked to identify barriers to the recruitment, hiring, and retention of qualified front-line staff, particularly of licensed baccalaureate social workers, Regional Directors uniformly identified low salary and lack of opportunities for advancement as the most serious impediments. The significance of these factors was further confirmed in focus groups with supervisors and caseworkers. Reportedly, Mississippi’s Personnel Board has refused to upgrade salaries for caseworkers in over five years. No annual or other cost of living increases are built into the existing salary scale.

All Regional Directors indicated that starting salaries were not competitive with other social work jobs in their regions. Several noted that, even in areas where other social work jobs had low entry level pay, DFCS positions were still not competitive when viewed in relation to the demands of the work. DFCS caseworkers have higher workloads, longer hours, and incur greater personal safety and liability risks than do staff in most jobs with similar requirements. All agreed that the lack of opportunity for salary increases was a major factor. Most other jobs for which applicants could qualify offer the promise of at least nominal periodic pay increases. A ‘career ladder’ that provided for a $2,000 salary increase at two years of service and an additional $4,000 at four years was designed several years ago, but was implemented only briefly before it was eliminated due to lack of funding.”

Low salaries contributes to another concern noted by Steib and Ingram. They say the most crucial of concerns they found was the unmanageable workload. “Although a few caseworkers interviewed in focus groups indicated that their current caseloads were manageable, most viewed excessive workload as a major impediment in doing their jobs effectively,” their report states.

The recommendation is to hire more front-line staff. But, without funds to do so, the load falls upon the shoulders of already overloaded case workers.

Another key problem highlighted in Steib and Ingram’s report is that supervisors are frustrated because they are having to work under “unreasonably adverse working conditions, lack of administrative support, and inadequate compensation and benefits.” Some supervisors have been appointed as acting supervisors but without supervisor pay, and some must carry their caseloads while performing supervisor duties. This prevents them from “providing guidance and support for the front-line staff.”

Salaries for front-line staff range from $21,761 for child protection specialists to $25,285 for a social worker. Administrative and management receive from $30,000 to $40,000 which is probably not high enough to attract experienced staff, the report states.

The Steib/Ingram report says MDHS tried to compensate for the lack of social workers by hiring child protection specialists who are not licensed social workers. Steib and Ingram cite studies which have discovered those front-line staff who do not have degrees in social work and a social work license do not have the job longevity nor the job-related skills needed to do it. The concern is that the “performance (of a licensed social worker) is more conducive to the attainment of safety, permanency, and well-being goals for children.”

“The bottom line,” says Melody McAnally, attorney for the plaintiffs, “is the ultimate responsibility lays with the governor and the legislators to fund the DFCS adequately so they can do their job. If they don’t, then the federal court will hold them accountable. That is one reason we filed this suit.”