Dozens of jobs for social workers who specialize in responding to reports of child abuse remain unfunded and unfilled across the state...

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SPOKANE — Dozens of jobs for social workers who specialize in responding to reports of child abuse remain unfunded and unfilled across the state, despite calls for increasing vigilance.

Last spring, after a series of high-profile child deaths, Gov. Christine Gregoire ordered social workers to respond more quickly to reports of abuse and neglect. State officials said they cut some administrative positions and moved more workers into the field to conduct interviews and check up on vulnerable children monthly.

But as the end of the year approaches, dozens of positions remain unfunded and empty, The Spokesman-Review newspaper reported over the weekend.

“That puts a lot of pressure on the system,” said Ken Kraft, regional administrator for the state Department of Social and Health Services’ division of children and family services in Spokane. “If I could fill those, the majority of those would be line staff positions. They would all be dedicated to field work to reduce caseloads.”

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Officials with the Children’s Administration, which oversees the DSHS division, said they could not say how many positions were unfunded. However, DSHS data released Friday indicate that the agency is about 54 positions under its state allotment, which is based on population and caseloads.

In the Eastern Washington region, the state reduced the budget by $3.1 million, including about $1.5 million from foster care, Kraft said.

Carol Felton, director of field operations for the Children’s Administration, said her office had worked to ensure the agency was hiring as many social workers as possible while trying to scale back on administrative costs.

“We went through and scrubbed our positions,” Felton said. “We put as many people as we can on the front line.”

State officials raised concerns in January after the death 7-year-old Tyler DeLeon, who had not seen a social worker in the last days of his life despite a report of facial bruises nine days before his death. Tyler died Jan. 13 of severe dehydration.

Gregoire directed social workers to respond within 24 hours in emergency cases and within 72 hours in cases where the child did not appear to be at risk of immediate harm.

In a report this fall, state officials found that in the past year the number of cases handled by the typical social worker decreased, indicating that employees had more time to work with each child. However, social workers also have greater responsibility with each case.

Meanwhile, the percentage of children in emergency situations who were seen within 24 hours of a call to the hotline jumped nearly 20 percent to about 88 percent of all hotline cases.

The report raised concern that increased demands on staff could drain morale, increase overtime costs and result in more staff errors. The report urged regions to fill vacancies as quickly as possible.

Bernie Ryan, executive staff director for the Children’s Administration, conceded that not all the allotted social-worker slots will be filled.

“There are some positions that we will not fill,” Ryan said. “There is an allotment above that, but we are not being funded to fill that allotment.”

The latest findings come as state leaders struggle with financing the responsibility to protect thousands of vulnerable children.

Last spring, the Children’s Administration faced a $12 million budget shortfall. Agency chief Uma Ahluwalia resigned, and state officials cut funding to programs that provided support services to children and families.