08/25/04 — Social Services hits barrier with hiring freeze

View Archive

Social Services hits barrier with hiring freeze

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on August 25, 2004 1:59 PM

Wayne County Social Services is facing a "crisis situation," officials say, because of a shortage of investigators of child abuse and neglect.

The child protective services unit has nine vacancies, which it cannot fill now because of a county hiring freeze, officials say. The remaining employees have caseloads up to three times the state standard. This means delays in investigations and follow-ups.

"Children are at risk in this county," Social Services Director Judy Pelt said.

County Manager Lee Smith said today that he would allow the hires if Mrs. Pelt can convince him that her staff is overextended. "We absolutely do not want to do anything that would put senior citizens or children in harm's way," Smith said.

But the county is operating on an extremely tight budget, he added. "I need to know that we're using all our employees 100 percent."

Mrs. Pelt's comments came at the Wayne County Board of Social Services' meeting Monday. She had met earlier in the day with a group of protective-service workers who were stressed and demoralized, she said.

"How can you go home and sleep at night when you don't think you can work your caseload?" she said. "They don't feel they can protect children."

Social Services has struggled for several months to hire and keep caseworkers in child protective services. It's a field with high employee burnout and high turnover. The county has lost employees to other counties, and others have moved into less stressful county jobs.

The vacancies mean more work for the remaining employees. Wayne County's social workers have caseloads of up to 35 investigations. That's nearly three times the state standard of a maximum of 12 investigations per worker, Mrs. Pelt said. Wayne County is one of only five N.C. counties that is out of compliance.

Mrs. Pelt did have two candidates lined up to hire when the freeze was announced, she said.

But the freeze, announced two weeks ago, wasn't a surprise, Smith said. "I've been telling the department heads since June that they needed to be moving on positions that have to be filled."

The county's budget depends on $1.8 million in lapsed salaries, money that doesn't have to be paid because of vacant positions. Last year's budget was constructed the same way, with Smith only allowing people to be hired after department heads had convinced him the employees were needed.

The personnel department is developing work standards for various departments. Those will give the administration a tool for gauging how much work employees should typically be completing.