Attorney General Moore Gets Involved In DHS Staffing Shortage

Attorney General Mike Moore says a lack of money is no excuse for some troubles at the state Department of Human Services, and he's about to get involved whether the agency likes it or not.

"An agency that's supposed to be taking care of children is not doing a very good job,'' Moore said Monday in a meeting with The Associated Press' Jackson staff.

"Let me be clear on that. The workers who are there are doing an extremely good job,'' the four-term attorney general said.

"They're just understaffed and underfunded. In my estimation, there's no real reason for it.''

Moore said he worked a year ago with Sue Perry, then-director of DHS' Division of Family and Children's Services, on a plan to get a $3 million federal matching grant that could have been used to fill vacancies in Perry's section.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services told Perry in a letter dated Oct. 2 that the state could match its portion of the grant by quantifying certain in-kind services provided by the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi.

Moore created the Partnership in 1998 with $62 million from the state's portion of the landmark settlement with tobacco companies a year earlier. It's a private, nonprofit group that uses TV ads, anti-smoking rallies and other techniques to fight tobacco use among young people.

Moore said DHS failed to follow through on the grant request and that executive director Janice Broome Brooks did not respond to a letter last summer about his concern for the lack of social workers in the field. Such a shortage endangers children and places the state at risk for lawsuits, Moore said.

"For almost a year now, they've done nothing,'' he said.

DHS spokeswoman Pam Confer said Monday afternoon that after evaluating the grant program, DHS officials learned that possibly $300,000 in federal assistance, not $3 million, was actually available. The agency is still working to secure the money.

"We certainly didn't turn down $3 million,'' she said.

Brooks was out of town Monday and not available to comment, Confer said.

Perry has since left DHS and recently joined Moore's staff in the children's division.

In a statement Monday evening, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove said state and federal officials met last month to determine ways to hire 47 new social workers for DHS. Musgrove said DHS was taking "aggressive steps'' to hire the new employees, but he offered no specifics.

Because of the state's financial crunch, DHS is operating without 21 percent of its 3,400-person staff, and it could lose another 25 percent unless the Legislature increases its 2003 budget. DHS asked for $94.5 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1; the Legislature gave it $74.7 million.

The agency distributes food stamps, collects child support, investigates child abuse allegations and oversees foster care, among other things.

Brooks has said she'll have to cut programs and lay off people unless her funding is restored.

Moore said he planned to contact the Department of Health & Human Services in Atlanta and Washington about possible federal assistance for DHS.

"I can hear the response from the executive branch now _ `That's not his job. That's our job,''' he said. "My response is: When you're not doing the job, somebody else has to.''

Confer said DHS welcomes Moore's help.

"We appreciate any effort from anyone who can help us secure funding during these tough economic times,'' she said.