Need is obvious for more funding for child-welfare workers | NevadaAppeal.com

Need is obvious for more funding for child-welfare workers

by John L. Smith

Critics have questioned his intelligence, but I think Gov. Jim Gibbons is a bright guy. Check his resumé.

Gibbons has piloted combat jets, graduated from the U.S. Air Force Air Command and Air War College; has degrees in geology, mining and law; served six years in the state Legislature and a decade in Congress. That’s not bad for a kid from Sparks.

Gibbons has enjoyed highly successful careers in the military and politics. With all that education and experience, it’s hard to imagine he fails to see the compelling need for increased statewide funding for the training of child-welfare caseworkers and their supervisors.

At just under $800,000, it’s a bargain on many levels.

It’s hardly newsworthy to note that the child-welfare system throughout Nevada is an overwhelmed mess.

The Children’s Advocacy Alliance recently gave the state a D-minus, but some would argue the group graded on a generous curve. Nevada long has been a nightmare for poor, abused and neglected children.

Caseworkers are asked to track far too many abused and neglected kids. It’s no secret that the state’s growth has outrun the system’s capacity. With 1,352 open cases, the potential for tragedy increases by the day.

The tragic consequences were realized with the August death of 17-month-old Joshua Sharp, a Child Haven resident. Joshua died from the effects of influenza and a blood infection brought on by an ear infection. His death focused attention on a system bursting at the seams.

Child Haven officials were vilified, but anyone who has followed the plight of the front-line workers knows the score. They’re hopelessly outnumbered.

Unlike areas of political/budgetary conflict, this isn’t one of those all-day kindergarten stories, where the Republican governor and the Democratic legislators disagree on the effectiveness of a costly program.

More study isn’t needed. In fact, state-appointed Blue Ribbon panels from Clark and Washoe counties have issued their reports to lawmakers.

Their findings show that the problems are complex, but the needs are clear: Smaller caseloads, increased oversight and improved caseworker training are essential to the system’s health and success. An independent consultant recently said a “massive amount” of training was called for.

Meanwhile, last week we heard from the governor’s spokesmen that the $798,000 request for child welfare caseworker training was not compelling enough to be funded in the budget. Close, but no cigar.

But this is the same state budget that includes taxpayer-funded contributions to well-connected and well-organized charities such as the Nevada Cancer Institute (a proposed $20 million), Opportunity Village ($12 million) and Lou Ruvo Brain Institute ($10 million).

Even Reno’s Nevada Discovery Museum is scheduled to receive $2 million under Gibbons’ two-year, $6.8 billion budget, which includes approximately $1 billion in increased spending.

To argue there isn’t enough money in that budget for caseworker training for abused and neglected children is asinine and disingenuous.

It makes painfully twisted sense to propose $300 million on the back-end proposition of state penitentiary construction but fail to shore up the front end that starts with the care of abused and neglected children.

We don’t need a Blue Ribbon panel to tell us that many of those troubled children will grow up to fill those prison cells.

On Friday, state Division of Child and Family Services Administrator Barbara Legier and Nevada Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Steve George said an attempt is being made to find training funding from inside the agency or through the grant process.

Legier said she was developing a “contingency plan on how to provide the type of training that we need.”

That plan could include a “train the trainer” program, in which trained supervisors would impart their new knowledge to caseworkers.

That’s at best a temporary fix.

In his first budget, Gibbons proposed increased funding for additional child- welfare workers and a slight increase in daily stipends for foster parents, something that even had his Democratic critics smiling.

Clearly, the governor has heard the calls for help from the front lines. He just needs to listen a little closer.

Those training dollars are essential, and it’s Gibbons’ prerogative to change his mind and embrace this need.

You’ll be faced with a lot of tough calls, Gov. Gibbons, but this one is simple.

You might even call it a no-brainer.

No offense.

• John L. Smith’s column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal’s Opinion page. E-mail him at smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.