More and more children in Washington will live in "grave jeopardy," suffer "irreparable injury" or die because of a reduction in the city's protective services staff, Mayor Walter E. Washington was warned this week by his committee on child abuse and neglect.
Members of the committee converged on the District Building to protest the elimination of 25 positions in the protective services - a unit they said is currently operating at about half its authorized staff.
The mayor appointed them to "assure every child the minimum standards of care for his protection and maximum development," the protesters said, and the job reductions contradicted that responsibility.
Collectively, the responses by city officials read like a Catch 22.
The City Council's action on the 1978 budget called for elimination of vacant and unfunded position to meet the Congressionally set city payroll of 35,200.
The mayor's budget office calculated that 726 unfilled positions in DHR would be abolished.
Acting DHR director Albert P. Russo decided that because the cutback equalled 8.65 per cent of the department's authorized staff, each major office and administration in the agency would have to reduce its staff by that percentage "to be as evenhanded as possible."
Child protective services is a division of the family services bureau within the social rehabilitation administration of DHR. It is prone to vacancies because of the intense and emotional work that often involves taking children from hostile and disturbed parents, said family services chief Betty Queen.
The unit was therefore more vulnerable than some others when Russo ordered SRA to eliminate 125 vacant positions as its "fair share," or 8.65 per cent of the DHR reduction. The protective service unit lost 25 positions.
"These are the real front line troops, the ones who give social services that must be provided, whether they are requested by the family or not," Queen said. "Attrition is very high."
At present, six workers staff the division's 24-hour, seven-day emergency center responding to complaints of neglect and suspected abuse of children and intervening in crises. They often work overtime, Queen said.
Another 22 workers follow up with police action, medical care, court testimony to remove children from threatening home environments and therapy or counseling to remedy such situations. They carry up to 55 cases each, instead of the accepted standard of 25. Queen said the followup work sometimes is not done.
Ironically, the child protection unit's staff of 62 was augmented in this year's budget by Council addition of 20 new positions and $250,000 to pay for them.
But the citywide ceilling prevented DHR from filling those jobs, and the protective services unit had by that time lost 19 workers through attrition. So, when social rehabilitation adminstrator William Barr was looking for vacant jobs to abolish, the unit was a prime target.
Barr "chose those positions - I didn't tell him where to cut," Russo said. "He had no alternative because that's where the vacancies were."
Russo said the situation is not as bad as it might be. Russo got an exemption from the ceilling to hire 20 new persons and designed eight of those jobs for child protective services, he said.
Members of the mayor's committee said, however, that the already critical situation will worsen because City Councilwoman Polly Shackleton last week introduced a bill that could increase the protective services staff's burden up to 600 per cent. The legislation is an attempt to modernize the city's antiquated child abuse laws. It requires more reporting and more services.
Committee members met briefly with City Administrator Julian Dugas, who expressed sympathy with their protests, and agreed to arrange a meeting for them with the mayor. Dugas also suuggested that the problem should be taken to the Council and to Congress, committee spokeswoman said.
The committee members, all community and private agency representatives who outnumber their government employee counterparts, urged the mayor to order that DHR "make cuts elsewhere" and fill the 40 vacancies in protective services.
"What is more important, keeping an administrative employee or serving some child who may end up dead," committee member Nancy Smith of the Council on Adoptable Children, a committee member, said.
Joan Danzansky, director of a family stress and child abuse prevention hotline, said her agency gets a number of calls that should go to DHR, but "they are so understaffed that they cannot do prevention. They can only respond to crises."
Shackleton also urged, in a note to Russo, that the jobs be restored and priority be given to jobs "providing direct services to the public."
Russo said he agrees with that position, but it is not the easy. Every unit of DHR "is hurting and hurting had. They have to run desperately just to standstill," he said.