More than 1,600 state workers charged with investigating and preventing child abuse and neglect are being given a competency test to determine whether they can stay on the job.
State officials said the multiple-choice test was designed to cover basics that all child welfare workers should know, but only 60 percent passed on their first tries early this year.
The figure had improved to about 80 percent by last week, and Maryland Human Resources Secretary Lynda G. Fox said she expects "in excess of 90 percent" to pass by year's end. Any workers who do not pass by Dec. 31 will be assigned to other jobs that do not involve casework, Fox said.
The testing was mandated by the General Assembly in the wake of public outrage over the death of 9-year-old Rita Denise Fisher in 1997. Social service workers had received repeated reports of suspected abuse before the Pikesville girl was killed.
State officials declined to say what they thought of the early test results by workers, many of whom were hired with no background in social work to fill jobs with a starting salary of $20,304 a year.
"I think you have to understand we've never done anything like this in Maryland before," said Carol Ann Mumma, deputy director of the state Social Services Administration. "I don't know why we had that result. I think you could have a lot of interpretations of the reasons for it."
The test was designed by the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
Ronald E. Zuskin, the school's training director, said the six-part exam was designed to be given to workers in stages as they went through nine days of training. But the state decided not to handle it that way for budgetary and staffing reasons, he said.
"These are people that with one day's training came in and took all the parts of the test consecutively," Zuskin said. "When you look at it that way, it's remarkable that that many [60 percent] passed everything."
He also noted that many of the employees were hired without any background or experience in social work and, while they might be highly competent in a narrowly defined job, did not necessarily have the broader knowledge the test required.
Mumma said workers who failed any part of the test are getting more training before they take it again. New workers must go through the full nine-day program and pass the test before becoming permanent employees.
She said the test explores such issues as identifying basic signs of mistreatment and how to assess whether a child can be left safely at home or needs to be removed.
"I would characterize it as a test that addresses things a child welfare staff needs to know," Mumma said. "The whole purpose is to get everybody to at least the same level of competence, and that's what this is doing."
Fox said the testing is part of a broader effort to improve the child welfare system. The workers are getting pay raises through job upgrades, and pilot programs to reduce case loads were started in nine jurisdictions.
Maryland's child welfare system has been troubled by high turnover as workers leave the stressful, low-paying jobs for other kinds of work. That has left the department in a continuing struggle to find qualified people and keep them.
"I don't think it's possible to overstate the difficulty of this particular set of jobs," Fox said.
She said workers have to make "Solomon-like decisions" about whether child abuse or neglect has occurred, whether it is likely to happen again and whether it is safe for a child to remain in a home.
The changes that are taking place haven't come without grumbling.
Some workers who passed the test this spring complain that state officials were slow to process pay upgrades and that some raises were much less than what they were led to expect.
James E. Bailey said he passed the test in May, the first time he took it. But he said his pay raise didn't come through until this month and was smaller than he expected. He also questioned the value of the exam.
"I don't think the test showed that you were competent in anything. It was just Social Work 101," said Bailey, a 17-year veteran now working as a child abuse investigator in Frederick County.
Janet Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Classified Employees Association, said the union has been working with employees and has mounted a letter-writing campaign to let legislators know about their grievances.
"There's a lot of dissatisfaction," Anderson said. "They are going through all these hours of testing and training, and the reward should have been an adequate pay raise. They need a decent salary to retain and recruit qualified social workers."
Fox said no one was eligible for a raise until July 1 and the department has been processing the increases as quickly as possible. She said the raises are limited to 6 percent under state personnel policies.
Fox said the starting salary of an entry-level caseworker with no experience has been increased from $20,304 to $25,942.
Licensed social workers with a master's degree moved up two pay grades, from a starting salary of $28,547 to $33,807. Top salary for that group was raised from $37,075 to $50,815.
"We're trying to stem the tide of attrition and attract a well-qualified, entry-level staff," Fox said.
In addition to testing workers who investigate child abuse cases and monitor children in foster care, Fox's agency is giving a similar exam to about 300 employees who work with disabled adults and the elderly.