Social workers say law to make them safer isn't working

By Mark Schnyder - bio | email

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - WAVE 3 is pushing for answers after state social workers are now suddenly fearing for their safety in their offices. Tuesday night, we reported how state budget cuts mean an 80-percent reduction in security guards at a building in downtown Louisville where a lot of emotional and volatile family situations are handled. WAVE 3's Mark Schnyder talked to some of those involved in that decision and to find out if the Boni Bill is living up to its billing.

A state law named after a murdered Kentucky social worker calls for $6-million to make working conditions safer. But because of budget cuts, it appears savings trumps safety.

April 5th, 2007 was a huge day for Kentucky social workers. Then-Governor Ernie Fletcher came to Louisville and signed the Boni Bill into law. It came with a promise to hire more workers, reduce case loads and improve safety in a volatile environment. Social workers rejoiced.

"Finally we're seeing the first steps and moving forward in a positive and meaningful way," social worker Karen Ivie said that day.

A little more than a year later those social workers say the state is doing a reckless 180.

"People threaten staff with guns and knives and fortunately we've got security all over the building and they stop it. Without security here, I don't know what's going to happen," says Child Protective Services investigator Diane Dawson.

Dawson is still glad the Boni Bill became law, but she and her colleagues wonder what good is it if the entire $6-million isn't being put to use?

"I don't know where it went. That's what we're wanting to know," says Dawson.

We went to Frankfort trying to get some answers but we couldn't get one higher up to go on camera. Social workers in Louisville are afraid for their safety. Those who help form policy are afraid to talk on camera, but one deputy commissioner for the Department of Community Based Services did tell me the last thing they want to do is put these social workers in harm's way, but considering the financial state of Kentucky, they don't have much choice.

The camera shy deputy commissioner, Teresa James, was a social worker herself for 25 years. James points to safety upgrades like security cameras and closing off all but one public entrance to the L&N building. The social workers acknowledge they got new cell phones and laptops which help out in the field, but they say that and safety training are no substitute for armed guards.

"We're not really slamming the Cabinet. Their hands are tied," said an unidentified social worker outside her office.

And their fingers are likely crossed as they hope the security measures that remain in place are enough to keep employees safe.

These cuts aren't just affecting social workers in downtown Louisville. Health and Family Service offices across the state are losing most of their security forces.