Anatomy of a safety net


A full range of protection and assistance programs and supporting services for the county’s “least, last, and lost” are carried out from the DHR office.

A full range of protection and assistance programs and supporting services for the county’s “least, last, and lost” are carried out from the DHR office.

It’s an agency with an impact proportionally much greater than its size: 34 total employees in Blount County. But its reach extends to virtually all age, ethnic, and socio-economic groups throughout the county, primary among them children, the elderly, the poverty-stricken, the neglected, and abused.

The purpose of this article is to give readers an idea of the range of services provided by the Blount County Department of Human Resources (DHR), a brief description of them, a glimpse of how the agency is organized to deliver them, and some sense of their overall magnitude and importance.

The major source for information is an interview with newly appointed Blount County DHR Director Maria Dresser. Four mission-critical activities

DHR is widely known for – and impacts the largest number of people – in connection with four areas of endeavor, beginning with the most difficult, according to Dresser: child welfare. Child welfare cases

“The problems we deal with in child welfare cases are the most difficult and complex, and often unique to one particular family and child,” Dresser said. These are the cases that may, but not always, result in summary removal of a child from a parental situation that may be hazardous to the child’s well-being.

Example: a meth lab is discovered and raided by law enforcement and there are children in the home. Not only the child, but even law enforcement and social workers may be in imminent danger in such a case. Of course, cases involving abuse or neglect also may constitute reasons for removing the child, temporarily or otherwise, Dresser said.

The Blount County DHR office carries current a caseload of approximately 110 child welfare cases. A majority are assigned to foster homes, which could be with a relative, with an unrelated foster parent, in a group home, or in some cases of severe behavioral problems, in a therapeutic home or hospital setting.

Some children who are not deemed to be in danger may remain in parental homes while various remedial program are carried out to preserve the family unit, along with the child’s well-being. About 20 of the 110 cases are new ones requiring investigation by DHR before disposition can be made.

Taken as a whole, these cases demand the greatest professional competence, courage, commitment, and judgment on the part of the social workers and investigators assigned to them, according to Dresser. Child support payments

Blount County DHR has 1178 assigned cases in June this year, up from 1160 in May. Those cases cover total child support collections of $139,857 in June, $131,287 in May. Consider the impact on children and families, some of whom depend – not entirely, but substantially – on those payments. In one case, an unemployed father of two, with children attending school and living full time in the home, survived for over a year between jobs with no family income other than a small, twicemonthly child support check. Multiply that example – not an unusually harrowing one – by 1178 cases. Food assistance

The food assistance division administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called the Food Stamp Program. Its purpose is to end hunger and improve nutrition by providing monthly benefits to eligible low-income households to help them buy food. Blount County has 3413 families and individuals qualified for food assistance. The fact that food assistance may be abused should not obscure the lifeline it provides to the majority of those eligible – including children, the elderly, the disabled, and others. Insuring safety: children and senior adults

Insuring safety is handled primarily through two divisions. One is Child Protective Services – which covers child welfare cases noted above – and includes maintaining the central registry on child abuse and neglect and administering applications for travel, placements, foster care, and adoptions of children entering or leaving the state.

The second is Adult Protective Services. Its mission is to protect the elderly, disabled, and other adults unable to protect their own interests from abuse, neglect, and exploitation, with a view toward preventing unnecessary institutionalization. DHR investigates reports of abuse, neglect, or exploitation and provides remedies through direct delivery and arrangement of needed services. Other DHR services and support activities (from notes provided by Dresser, supplemented by other sources)

Family assistance provides the means for qualified families to meet basic necessities for living, to maintain and strengthen family life, and to help parents or relatives maintain self-sufficiency to further develop good parental skills. It provides temporary cash assistance for low-income families with children under 18 or 19 (the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program –TANF – though no longer called by that name). It also provides direct work assignments and job training services through JOBS.

Child support enforcement helps families establish paternity when necessary, obtains court orders for payment of child support, and secures compliance with those court orders. A key goal is to help families gain selfsufficiency, because non-payment of child support is a key factor contributing to impoverishment of children.

Family services develops and administers programs (such as in-home training and counseling) directed at preventing or lessening abuse, neglect, and exploitation of children and elderly or disabled adults. The objective is to develop a quality system of care for both children and adults aimed at achieving safety, permanency, and improved well-being in their own homes, as well as in out-of-home settings.

Child care services is responsible for the child care subsidy program. It monitors and licenses child care centers for compliance with minimum standards. In Blount County, that includes eight licensed day care centers.

Foster care and adoption are both handled through DHR’s Family Services unit. Currently in Alabama there are over 6000 children in foster care. Some need it only for a matter of days. Others may need it for much longer – until they are returned to their biological family or a plan is made for them to be adopted. Who are they? They are children of all ages, ethnic, and economic backgrounds who cannot currently live with their birth families due to the risk of neglect or physical or sexual abuse. Included are teens with varying degrees of mental, physical, behavioral, or emotional problems. At any given time in Alabama, there are hundreds of children in foster care who are awaiting a loving and caring adoptive home. Many have been placed in custody due to parental or physical abuse. Their lives can be reclaimed and brightened forever by a nurturing adoptive home. Breakdown of DHR jobs

The Blount County DHR office includes: 1 director 1 child support worker 1 program supervisor 1 public assistance worker 5 staff supervisors 5 food assistance workers 9 service/social workers 10 administrative/support staff 1 JOBS worker

The matter of annual budget is harder to get a handle on; in fact Dresser said she hasn’t been here long enough to master it completely yet. She says the annual budget is flexible, based on needs in the county. Extraordinary expenses for special cases can be covered directly by the state. Would it amount to as much as $50,000 a month on the average, exclusive of salaries ($600,000 a year)? No, she said, but politely begged off on providing further details at this time. Director comments

Maria Dresser has been on the job as DHR director only a little over two weeks – hardly time to have a comprehensive view of all the details of a new workplace and operation. But she has already formed some impressions. Asked what she finds unexpected or unique about the Blount County assignment, she had this to say:

“One thing I can already tell Blount County has is tremendous community support. The willingness and attitude of every agency and person has been great. There have been no territorial issues – and we work with all social service agencies in the county. It’s like everyone’s approach is ‘Can y’all help’em?’ ‘Can we help’em?’ or ‘Can we help’em together?’ Tremendous community support.”

A more complicated question was what she hopes to achieve in this job, for DHR itself in Blount County, and for its clients. Her answer:

“My greatest desire for Blount County and its residents is that during my time here our agency can meet all the needs of adults, families, and children that need our assistance – and meet them in an effective, safe, and time-limited way so they can move forward as healthy, happy, and productive citizens. That’s my career goal. It’s also my life goal.” Condensed history

DHR was created in 1935 to administer assistance programs that were part of the Social Security Act. These programs were developed to help an American public suffering the hardships of the Great Depression. It was originally called the Department of Public Assistance. In 1955, it was renamed the Department of Pensions and Security, and renamed again in 1986 to the Department of Human Resources. It’s primary goal remains the same: to help people in need. Although the agency employs a variety of professionals, social workers represent the largest category of employees.