Governor Signs New Funding Bill For DHS

Governor Ronnie Musgrove said the state must hire new social workers so child abuse and child neglect cases don't slip through the cracks.

"The future of our state rests in the hands of our children," he said. "We must do our job to make sure that their quality of life is good now, so that the quality of life will be good as adults."

Because of the funding bill he signed, Harrison County could get as many as 20 new social workers. Musgrove said the sooner they can be hired, the better off everybody will be.

"If we're able to hire five next week," he said, "you can rest assured we're going to take those five."

Harrison County isn't the only county that will benefit from this bill.  Jackson County's DHS office may get nine more investigators. And Stone County should get two more child abuse case workers.

The DHS crisis started two years ago, when the state slashed budgets. The Harrison County DHS office lost all but five of its child abuse case workers.

If the funding bill does what it's supposed to do, Harrison County will get many of those investigators back.

That's good news for people like Sonya Funderburk. She's the newest DHS social worker. Yet she already has 176 case files filled with neglected and abused children. Funderburk joined the depleted child welfare agency just a month and a half ago.

"I came for an interview and they recruited me to come on board," she said.

Funderburk is one of nine Harrison County social workers investigating child abuse case. Gladys Payne works with all of them. She's been with DHS for a quarter century.

"If you love children, that's what you do, take care of them," Payne said.

Before DHS cut its budget two years ago, taking care of child abuse files was spread between nearly two dozen agents. But when the agency lost nearly all of its social workers, protecting abused children became a nearly life or death struggle.

"I can see where if we don't have enough staff," said Funderburk, "a child can fall through the cracks."

That's what state lawmakers tried to prevent, when they approved a million dollars for DHS. The funding bill signed by the governor pays for new social workers in counties where each case worker is looking into more than 50 child abuse cases.

Dorothy McEwen is part of the child care advocacy group called PACT that pushed for more DHS assistance.

"It's a good day," McEwen said. "But it isn't a great day. It's a beginning."

The next step is to hire qualified social workers. And that may not be easy. Right now, DHS doesn't have a single applicant looking for a job in Harrison County.

"I think it's good that we've got money," said McEwen. "It's going to be a very difficult task in recruiting social workers. But everybody is going to work together in recruiting them, and then that will make it better, once we can get Harrison County back up the way it used to be."

The DHS funding bill is supposed to recruit and retain child abuse case workers. The starting salary for a qualified agent is $24,000 a year. With this additional funding, all social workers would also be eligible for a five percent pay raise.