Letters to the Editor

SOCIAL BLUNDER
To the Editor:

Thanks for heralding the DFS caseworkers and describing their plight ("Our Fine Folks in the Field," Nov. 18). As a social worker in a nonprofit, community-based agency working with the same folks, I communicate with caseworkers frequently, though not often enough. When I get through on the phone lines at all, I find most are willing and helpful. All are overstressed and overwhelmed. I'm often left with little or no resolution to the problem at hand. It has been the nature of these bureaucracies to have this enormous perception gap between the line workers seeing the people and the state-level planners trying to figure out how to implement massive changes. There is, of course, an even larger gap between Congress and the bureaucrats. As a board member and advocate with the Reform Organization of Welfare, I have interacted with the state-level planners. I get the feeling that they are seasoned professionals who have had enough experience to know that this welfare-reform scheme simply cannot be implemented in the legislated time frame and under the looming economic constraints. But they are paid to implement it and so must dutifully forge ahead as if it is possible.

The caseworkers, though, are the point in the system encountering the real people with real and difficult problems. They are the front line, the pivot in the system where political ignorance and bureaucratic self-deception encounter the hard, cold truth.

I am now one of those "contracted case managers." It was interesting that you found that the caseworkers fear we will "cream" the most employable clients. We have feared just the opposite would happen. The whole process initially backed up behind screening and referral from DFS.

We were told DFS would screen and refer appropriate clients to us. They sent us lists of disabled and otherwise disqualified candidates for work activity, when our contract is to assist nonexempt recipients to meet work requirements. We are spending far more than the scant $100 a month per client they pay us just tracking down and engaging any truly eligible client we can find. After a month of this, with seven staff working on it in the midst of our other multiple demands, we have only four clients on our caseload. We are not paid to assess and engage clients. We are only paid to assist them to meet work requirements. No one at DFS, apparently, has been doing thorough assessment of needs and barriers. If they are, the information is not coming to us. We have been given no manual, no training in DFS assessment procedures. If we are to be DFS' "saving grace," they will need to get much more intentional about making it work. I have felt all along that they might want us to fail so they can politically justify hiring a private contractor against the wishes of the caseworkers' union.

My analysis is that a system for welfare reform has been launched but not created. Congress set the deadlines, and they are impossible to meet even with the so-called strong economy. The DFS system is reeling in future shock, and the caseworkers are in shell wshock. The clients are moving out of denial into fear. Next comes frustration. When the sanctions kick into high gear, they'll demonstrate more anger, as well they should. The three-month food-benefits recertification-paperwork backlog is a painful portent of things to come. Those of us "on the ground" (DFS caseworkers and community-based agency workers alike) knew all along that this wave of welfare reform, as proposed, would be far more expensive than the old entitlement system. We also suspected the resources would not follow the rhetoric.

Mark Harvey
Social Services Coordinator
Kingdom House

To the Editor:

I want to thank you for the great article about the Division of Family Services. It was the first article in my 23-plus years of employment with DFS that even came close to actually describing what it is like to work there.

I have been in both income maintenance and children's services. I have been able to usually roll with the flow that any big bureaucratic agency has, but it is getting really scary how much worse things are getting on a daily basis. The memos and policy changes come every day. Changes are made that the computer system can't handle, so somehow the worker has to figure out how to do what they are being asked to do. The saddest part is not the ever-changing face of the person who sits next to you, or the incomprehensible policies, or trying to calm a "customer" who has been trying to reach you for days or weeks, or calming that person who has had to wait to see you for hours; the saddest part is that the client is facing a whole new set of problems dealing with the agency but does not have the inside knowledge to get what they need from a staff that's overworked, understaffed and (subject to) constantly changing rules.

DFS employees do try to get the job done, but it is getting harder and harder, and every day more and more of us are giving up, giving in and walking out that door.

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