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Improve caseworkers' pay

State lawmakers have appropriated enough money, finally, so that the Division of Child and Family Services might finally work its way from under the cloud that has followed it since it was sued a decade ago. An infusion of nearly $2 million will allow officials to hire 51 new child abuse caseworkers and trainers.

That's good news. But it would be even better news if those new employees were going to be paid a wage commensurate with the importance of the work they are doing.

The caseworkers are the ones who work with families, evaluating their situations and deciding whether the state needs to take action to protect children. Ten years ago, the National Center for Youth Law in California sued the state on behalf of 17 children it claimed were sexually and physically assaulted while in the state foster care system. That suit was settled a year later, with the state agreeing to make several changes.

To date, not all of those changes have been made, although the state has made significant progress. The division has fallen short, officials have argued, in part because of a shortage of workers and qualified trainers.

But the starting pay for a child abuse caseworker with a bachelor's degree is $12.71 per hour. On the basis of 40 hours per week, that works out to a little more than $26,000 per year. If the new worker has a master's degree, he or she would make $15.80 per hour, or just under $33,000 per year.

That may be a living wage under some circumstances, but it hardly measures up to the stress of the job or the intense scrutiny these works must undergo. Because of the lawsuit, caseworkers are monitored closely to see how many families they successfully reunite and how soon needy children and families are given help. They also must make sure not to overreact to reports of abuse until they have studied the case and made a determination.

Late last year, division officials told the court they have a 34 percent turnover rate in these jobs. Given the pay and the conditions, that's not terribly surprising.

Few state jobs are as important as these. Families, and the lives of the state's most vulnerable citizens, its children, depend on them.

State lawmakers deserve credit for providing the money to hire more workers. That's a good start. The next step should be to provide the kind of money that would allow DCFS to be fully staffed and better compensated.