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Blog, In the News

Budget adds public defenders, social workers

January 28, 2016

By Deborah Yetter

Kentucky’s public defenders would get long-sought relief from crushing caseloads and state social workers could see a pay increase aimed at reducing worker burnout and high turnover under the budget proposal unveiled by Gov. Matt Bevin on Tuesday.

The plights of both agencies have been detailed in recent months in Courier-Journal stories about what officials said were intolerable caseloads of public defenders and near-crisis conditions among state social workers with rising caseloads and shrinking staffs.

635894361235639386-Bevin-05Also, Kentucky’s 15 regional Child Advocacy Centers, which get only a portion of their operating costs from the state, would get an increase of $1.5 million for their work serving child abuse victims.

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Pam Darnall, president of Family & Children’s Place in Louisville, which provides a variety of children’s services in Jefferson and six surrounding counties.

Kentucky’s Department of Public Advocacy, under Bevin’s budget proposal, would be able to hire another 44 lawyers, reducing average caseloads for its 333 lawyers from more than 500 cases to fewer than 400, said Ed Monahan, who runs the state’s public defender agency.

“This is really a smart investment,” Monahan said of the proposed increase of nearly $6.3 million over the next two budget years.

By disposing of criminal cases faster, defendants get out of jail faster – after being held there at county expense while awaiting trial. Monahan said that to support his request for the funds to hire 44 more lawyers, he’s been enlisting support of county officials concerned about rising jail costs.

Monahan said he believes the concern of county officials about jail costs and last year’s Courier-Journal piece about the workload of his lawyers helped bring the matter to Bevin’s attention.

“We need to let people know why this is a smart business decision,” he said.

Monahan said his agency did not get funds he had hoped for to increase salaries of public defenders, who start at $38,770 a year. But he said he is glad to be spared the cuts Bevin proposes for most agencies – 4.5 percent for the remainder of this fiscal year and 9 percent for the next two budget years.

“I am very grateful for being excluded,” he said.

As for social workers, The Courier-Journal reported last year that even as state social workers contended with a record number of more than 8,000 children removed from homes because of abuse or neglect, workers were quitting faster than they could be replaced. Many reported caseloads of 50 although more though national standards call for no more than 18 per worker.

In September, the newspaper reported that Teresa James, the former commissioner of social services, said the state needed millions of dollars to hire more staff and boost pay for social workers who start at about $32,000 a year.

Bevin’s budget includes about $3 million over the next two years to increase pay of social workers with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, a move his budget statement said would affect about 2,030 employees.

The budget document filed Tuesday night says it would increase salaries of social service workers and social service clinicians by about 6.7 percent by changing them from a 37.5-hour work week to 40 hours.

The proposed budget also said a “new minimum salary plan” would be implemented to try to retain workers. The Bevin administration did not provide further details Wednesday on how the changes would affect social workers or how they would be applied.

Patricia Raque Pregliasco, a 17-year social worker with the cabinet in Louisville, said Wednesday in a text message that she hopes the changes are meant to improve pay for all workers, not just new hires. Many experienced workers in Jefferson County have quit, leaving only about a quarter of the workforce with two or more years of experience.

“It is those of us who have not quit and committed to our families and children in need that carry the most load,” she said. “If only the new and inexperienced workers get raises, what little hope and spirit that is still left will be irrevocably crushed.”

The Children’s Advocacy Centers were singled out by Bevin in his budget statement as of special interest to his wife, Glenna Bevin, who has made reducing child abuse and neglect a priority.

Darnall said the 15 regional child advocacy centers are mandated to serve children who have suffered sexual or other abuse but aren’t fully funded by the state. Family & Children’s Place gets about $142,000 a year from the state but has an operating budget of about $600,000 a year.

“We have to do a lot of private fundraising and a lot of grant-writing to keep the doors open,” she said.

Darnall said after Bevin was elected governor in November, she invited Glenna Bevin to tour Family & Children’s Place.

“We had a wonderful visit and shared with her the great work we are doing,” Darnall said.

Darnall said she was surprised but pleased to see the funding increase in the governor’s budget proposal.

Now her goal will be to try to make sure that money stays in the budget as the legislature reviews and enacts a two-year spending plan based on Bevin’s proposal.

Monahan said he shares that goal of ensuring funds to hire more lawyers for his department survive in the budget process.

“We need to let people know why this is a smart business decision,” he said.

Reporter Deborah Yetter can be reached at 502-582-4228 or