State budget cuts are expected due to the severe downturn in revenues amid the coronavirus pandemic. And those cuts will also hit agencies that serve citizens in need, such as the Department of Family and Children Services.
“The Governor has issued a 14-percent budget cut for all state agencies,” said Madison County DFCS director Kristy Daniels. “We will be impacted by that. Last year, we had a budget cut. This year, we had another six-percent cut. Our division director is really trying to do the things he can do to not impact the front lines and staff. But we don’t have specifics on that. But he’s doing his best not to lay people off. We are under a hiring freeze. So if someone quits, we can’t rehire.”
Years ago, Madison County had a director who only covered Madison County, but the director’s post has been consolidated with other counties. Daniels also oversees DFCS departments in Oglethorpe and Elbert County.
While budget cuts loom, the department has had other pressing matters to occupy their thoughts — namely, how to serve clients amid a pandemic.
Daniels said her staff in Madison County remains busy processing food stamp benefits and overseeing foster families and child abuse and neglect cases.
Meanwhile, the DFCS office is closed to the public through at least June, she said, and staff members are handling client interactions primarily online.
“We have done everything virtual unless you can’t resolve it over the phone,” said Daniels, adding that staff members have made home visits when needed wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). “We have different programs we use to contact families. Right now, the offices across the state are closed. Everything is online or by phone. At the Madison office, there’s a slot in the door if anybody needs to leave something. I have someone who goes in regularly. All the lines are forwarded. Our staff has their computers at home.”
The director said approximately 3,000 Madison County residents are in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). She said the number of clients receiving food assistance went up 100 from February to March. She doesn’t have the April data yet.
Daniels noted that the federal government kicked in additional funding for the SNAP program, which is called “P-SNAP” for pandemic assistance. This temporary change “allows those not receiving the full amount for their household to automatically access additional benefits for a limited time.” That boosted the county’s March benefits from $381,857 in February to $607,121. The April numbers aren’t available yet.
Daniels said child abuse/neglect cases in the county are down from 2019. There were 24 reports of abuse last March, compared to 16 in March of this year, along with 17 in April 2019, compared to 10 in April 2020.
“Our numbers (child abuse/neglect) have gone down,” she said. “With school being out, teachers aren’t seeing kids to tell them what’s going on at home. They’re seeing them on the computer. But the cases we’ve been getting have been more severe.”
Daniels added that the need for foster homes is ever-present. She said that there are now 18 foster homes in Madison County and 20 kids in foster care. However, those children are sent wherever there is an opening. So, Madison County kids are often not able to stay in the county.
“We have kids all over the state,” said Daniels. “Across the state, that (foster homes) is a need.”
Daniels said the courts moved foster meetings between parents and their children from in-person to virtual due to the pandemic.
“With shelter-in-place and all the distancing everybody is going through, it was put into place that those visits should be virtual,” said Daniels. “So, in some ways that has actually increased the foster children having more contact with parents, kids being able to do more with their parents, even though it’s not person-to-person, just being able to pick up the phone and call your parents versus having to wait until Tuesday at 5 p.m. to see my mom, which they did phone calls before, but now that everybody is at home, it has really seemed to kind of help in some cases build a better relationship.”
Daniels said working outside of the office has been quite different for the staff. She said it has its emotional ups and downs. The Madison County staff includes 23 employees.
“I tell my supervisors, it’s kind of like a grieving process,” she said. “You’re mad, you’re accepting, you go back to mad. I want to see my peers…. I think we’re starting to embrace working at home and connecting with each other that way. But we still miss the client interactions and our office interactions.”
Daniels said DFCS clients have been “kind of in the same boat as the general population.”
“We’ve had some families that have had some significant issues and we have others that the family has enjoyed the time at home and has built up in a positive,” she said. “I think there’s a bit of both.”
Daniels said one positive during the pandemic was how the community responded when she sought personal protective gear for in-home visits and upcoming office interactions.
“We’ll re-open and we’ll need some masks for staff, and I reached out to our CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) group and a local church, Trinity Baptist, and we had a huge response to donate us masks,” said Daniels. “Within a day, we had over 100 masks donated that were handmade.”
HOW TO ACCESS DFCS SERVICES
Daniels offered the following contacts for those seeking more information about DFCS services:
•Apply for food assistance at https://gateway.ga.gov/access/
•Contact DFCS directly at email@example.com or 404-657-3433.
•Resolve Gateway technical issues at 1-877-423-4746
•Visit http://homein5.net/ to find out more about becoming a foster parent or call 877-210-KIDS