Some youth workers wonder whether cost-cutting measures in the cash-poor state Division of Child and Family Services are detrimental to children entrusted to the agency's care.

State social workers took on larger caseloads after the division pulled 330 children from private youth-care providers over the past two months to save money. DCFS also moved 23 children to less expensive facilities within the system.

In addition, 26 state workers have quit or retired who won't be replaced due to a hiring freeze. The cutbacks rippled through private programs that contract with the state, shutting down several and putting at least two dozen contract foster- and proctor-care workers out of jobs.

DCFS is trying to make up an $8 million deficit in its $118 million budget. High-cost care for an influx of teenagers into the system for reasons other than abuse and neglect; state-mandated employee salary increases, and cost overruns on a new computer tracking system contributed to the shortfall.

"We're spending a lot of time on it," Patterson said. "I'm concerned about the staff morale."

The National Center for Youth Law, which sued the state several years ago citing poor child welfare practices, is watching the budget situation closely.

Attorney Martha Matthews said it would be "troubling" if DCFS were pulling children from treatment centers before they're ready. "I would hope they're looking for ways to cut overhead and administrative costs before actually moving kids around," she said.

The agency is not yanking children from programs to save money, DCFS director Patterson said..

"We think we've moved the right ones who sufficiently completed their treatment," he said.

Alicia Bailey, a private youth-care provider, says forcing private programs to close and increase state workers caseloads will decrease the quality of service for foster children. It also places more strain on already highly stressed caseworkers, she said.

Patterson doesn't believe care has been compromised but says it could be if caseloads, currently about 12 to 14 clients per worker, reach 18 or 20. The division is within the Child Welfare League of America standards, he said.

"If they creep above 20, we know the quality of services diminishes," he said. If that happens, Patterson said, he would have to transfer employees from one region to another to ease the burden.

The division is scaling back employee training, out-of-state travel and conferences through the fiscal year, which ends June 30. At least one region has taken cell phones from many employees and given them pagers. DCFS also quit supplying UTA bus passes to foster families, according to one foster parent.

Financial woes probably couldn't come at a worse time for DCFS as it's trying to live up to a new child-welfare plan that resulted from the lawsuit. Patterson said he believes the agency is on headed in the right direction.