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In rough water 

With its longtime director moving on, county DHS faces spiking demand

Barbara Drake - ANTHONY LANE

More than 18,000 families now get food stamps in El Paso County, up nearly a third from a year ago. Local child abuse and neglect reports are on pace to approach 12,000 this year, a projected increase of about 1,000 over last year. The county has seen four child abuse deaths through late March, after six in all of 2008.

So, it's looking rough at the county Department of Human Services before you even consider it just lost a leader who had been with the department 32 years.

Barbara Drake, 59, ended her career with El Paso County DHS last week to take over as human services director in Douglas County, a growing area but still sleepy regarding human services. (Consider: Douglas County had 1,700 child abuse referrals last year, a number El Paso County had topped in '09 as of February.)

Rick Bengtsson, speaking Monday on his first day as the department's acting director, plays down the chance of upheaval for the county's most vulnerable.

"I think we have a pretty good foundation," the 55-year-old says.

Drake says her departure is a personal decision and has nothing to do with El Paso County cutting funding and freezing pay while expecting everything to run as normal.

"Thirty-two years is a long time to work in one place," she says. "I decided it was time to see what I could do to round out my career."

DHS here gets about 80 percent of its funding from the state and federal governments, which means any cuts out of local matching funds have an outsized impact. Last year, Drake convinced commissioners to avoid slicing her funding and sending the department afoul of federal requirements for administering Medicaid, food assistance and other welfare-type programs. She even expanded her workforce 14 percent, bringing her to 415 employees.

That's still nearly 800 fewer than are employed in Denver, the state's only busier human services department. And local employees are more prone to leave, thanks largely to pay freezes and lower starting wages. Techs who process paperwork for food stamps and Medicaid start off at $11.25 an hour here; they could make $2 or $3 more an hour in the Denver metro area or in Pueblo.

Drake, careful to avoid being critical, says the disparity in pay is a problem. "I do think we're falling behind," she says.

Tight funding has forced El Paso County DHS to form partnerships with support organizations, charities and child care providers, an approach Drake plans in Douglas County.

Bengtsson, who's worked at DHS for 16 years and has served as deputy director for 1, says if he's hired as permanent director, he'll push he department to start digitizing records. Of course, county leaders have long bemoaned their aging computer systems, so that plan might be a ways off.

Before any of that, a notice will go out advertising the top job, which hadn't happened early this week. Commissioners have said they plan a statewide search.

Shawna Kemppaninen, development director at TESSA, a local nonprofit that fights domestic violence and sexual assault, says whoever gets the final nod will assume a huge responsibility.

"The person stepping into that position has a lot of pressure on them," she says.

lane@csindy.com

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