Monday, December 17, 2001

Family services boss faces tough job

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The new director of Hamilton County's Department of Job and Family Services was first a client of the department. And Suzanne Burke was not a satisfied customer.

        A four-time foster mother before starting her own family, Ms. Burke often complained to then-director Don Thomas about the system that had stores refusing the county's clothing vouchers because of unpaid bills, and staff making recommendations to judges about children they had never met.

        Next month, the 38-year-old Ms. Burke will leave as the county's budget director and take the reins of an $887 million-a-year department that faces $34 million in budget cuts as it delivers services to the county's most needy people.

        It's the job she's always wanted.

        “I've always had one eye on that job,” the Finneytown native said. “I'm a people person, and I want to help people, especially children.”

        She'll get that chance at one of the most difficult and

        important times in the department's history.

        The budget cuts include many programs designed to get people off welfare.

        In addition, the five-year children's services levy, passed by voters in November, isn't expected to pay all the bills beyond 2002. Ms. Burke also faces high worker turnover rates, employees dealing with 1,100 cases each, and a department that needs to research 18,000 child support records to figure out who is due refunds from the state.

        Ms. Burke plans to wade hip-deep into the fray.

        Instead of moving into an administrative office on the seventh floor of the human services building, Ms. Burke's office will be on the fourth floor, alongside caseworkers from child support, children's services and welfare.

        She'll answer her own phone, as she always has, tag along with caseworkers and talk to her employees to get their opinions.

        “We have to hold people accountable for both the program goals and the fiscal goals,” Ms. Burke said. “It's a shared responsibility. With the magnitude of the cuts, everyone has to get on top of that and manage the programs within the budget they have.”

        Mr. Thomas, who lives in Gainesville, Fla., and consults with counties on human service issues, said he began mentoring Ms. Burke to replace him after she came to the department in 1991.

        And, yes, he remembers the letters.

        “I thought it was gutsy for someone to write a letter to their boss and say the system isn't working,” Mr. Thomas said. “We all saw her as a bright and shining star.”

        The announcement of her replacing Mr. Thomas has left Ms. Burke in an awkward spot during the past couple of months. As budget director she has had to trim spending so the books are balanced. As the new welfare director, she has to fight to get enough money to keep programs afloat.

        It's a high-wire act that affects thousands of clients who rely on the county for help.

        Commissioner John Dowlin said Ms. Burke handled the situation with grace, and he expects the same from her as director of human services.

        “I personally think it's good to have someone come up from the ranks,” Mr. Dowlin said. “She knows what goes on over there. She's very, very bright and gets things done.”

        Ms. Burke — a mother of one who is an avid reader, golfer, cook, soccer mom and Elton John fan — said she's ready to start getting things done.

        “There's a lot on the line in that department right now,” Ms. Burke said.


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