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DFACS adjusting to rise in applications
web 1216 DFACS
Construction on the $4.8 million, 22,690-square-foot DFACS facility is on track, barring any weather obstacles, Director Debbie Bennett said. The department is slated to move in May 1. - photo by John Henderson

Local poverty statistics by the numbers

• 573,000 — Georgians in the ranks of the poor in 2009 and ’10

• No. 3 — Georgia’s rank for national job losses since the 2008 economic crisis

• $44,000 — Median income in Georgia, down from  a prerecession level of around $52,000

• 17.5  — Percent of Liberty County residents who live at the poverty level

• 15 — Percent of Liberty County residents who live below the poverty level

• 3,566 — Liberty County households that receive food stamps, which equates to about $4,457,000 in community aid

While the world economic crunch has rippled through businesses and slashed income for some, its effects also have been making their way to an organization aimed to buffer families from poverty: the Division of Family and Children Services.

Though the social service organization has faced cuts for about four consecutive years, a state-mandated change that took effect in June has forced local caseworkers to stop working on a case-management basis and begin working in a task-oriented manner, Liberty and Long DFACS Director Debbie Bennett said in a presentation to the Hinesville Rotary Club on Tuesday.

“In other words, we may have a worker who takes applications, and when the application is taken, they pass it on to another person, and when that annual review comes around, someone else does the annual review,” she said.

The division — part of the Georgia Department of Human Services Region 12, a nine-county region — has two departments, Office of Family Independence, which handles eligibility programs, and Child Welfare, which handles social services.

 Soon, the office may share work with Effingham County cases, as well, Bennett said. Eventually, the work may be shared as far away as Fulton County.

“The real reason for this is economics,” she said. “You can get more mileage with fewer staff if you divide the work out in this fashion.”

During the question-and-answer portion, Bethesda Church Pastor Timothy Byler raised concerns about how the move to a task-oriented productivity model could leave some families in limbo.

“I can see probably a plus and a minus in the process of that,” he said. “One being that when you’re dealing with a caseworker, the caseworker is generally following the family through, and they get an opportunity to get a better assessment of what is taking place. … I’m concerned: Will people just kind of become numbers with that?”

Bennett acknowledged that her staff has been concerned with the change as well.

“We go into this business because they want to help people and have that person-to-person contact — they are missing that,” she said. “I do think we’re going to miss that holistic look at the person.

“When you had that person come in and sit across from you about their food stamps, they were also telling you about their other issues and problems, and you could do referrals out (to other agencies). We do talk to them on the telephone, but it’s not the same, so I do think we’re going to lose a piece there.”

Bennett added that the state is aware of the issue and that she believes the staff will be able to accomplish more with the new system, which includes more online application and renewal services.

“I’ve had a number of people come to our office in the last couple months, and they’re wanting to use our computer to go to services online, and they can barely afford electricity, much less Internet,” Byler said.

He added that online services often require email follow-ups, which aren’t practical for families who are trying to get by without Internet service.

To highlight the area’s dependence on the department, Bennett presented state and local statistics.
“Poverty has risen dramatically in Georgia, with about 573,000 Georgians being in the ranks of the poor in 2009 and 2010,” she said.

The poverty level rose from about 13.1 percent in 2006-07 to 18 percent in two years.

Georgia also was No. 3 for national job losses since the 2008 economic crisis, resulting in a rise in the state unemployment rate from 5.2 percent to 10.3.

“The median income in Georgia declined from a prerecession level of around $52,000 to around $44,000,” Bennett added.
In Liberty County, 17.5 percent of residents live at the poverty level, 15 percent live below the poverty level, and 7.4 percent live 50 percent below the poverty level.

Currently, 3,566 Liberty County households receive food stamps, which equates to about $4,457,000 in community aid. The group took 444 new applications for aid in October, she added.

The group also responded to 643 reports made to Child Protective Services between July 2010 and June 2011. The majority of those reports come from professionals, such as teachers and doctors, who legally are obligated to report suspicious cases.

“Our phones are constantly ringing off the hook. We have a flow of people coming in, and it’s been a real paradigm shift for our customers to try to figure out how they fit in when they don’t have a caseworker to call,” she said.

“We have really had a struggle with that, and I know that some of you in the community have told me ‘I can’t get through to the front desk,’” Bennett said. “I do want to hear from you if you have problems.”

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