DHR director Dresser sees increasing need for agency's services
by Eddie Burkhalter
Sep 04, 2013 | 4752 views |  0 comments | 57 57 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Maria Dresser is the new Calhoun County DHR Director. Photo by Stephen Gross.
Maria Dresser is the new Calhoun County DHR Director. Photo by Stephen Gross.
She doesn’t officially start as director until Sept. 16, but Maria Dresser is already working as interim director of the Calhoun County Department of Human Resources. That’s because there’s plenty to do at the department’s new building in west Anniston, she explained, as the lasting effects of the recession of 2008 continue to add names to the DHR caseload.

Dresser leads a staff of about 125 in providing financial assistance and child and adult welfare services.

She began at Calhoun County DHR in 2001, working in several departments, including that of assistant director, before leaving to become a juvenile probation officer for St. Clair County Juvenile Court. She became director of Blount County DHR July of last year.

She returned part-time to Calhoun County DHR in May as interim director, taking the place of then-director Douglas Heath, who left to become an assistant director at Jefferson County DHR.

Regardless of where she’s worked, Dresser has seen the need for her department’s services.

“There are so many people that have hit rock bottom,” Dresser said, speaking of the lingering effects of the recession.

In June — the last month in which reports are available — her department recorded 5,903 child support collection cases. That’s a 26 percent increase from 2007.

Since 2007, the number of people who received food assistance from the department jumped by 58 percent, to 24,924 in June.

Those increases are proof that the gains in the economy aren’t filtering down quickly enough to low and middle-income families, said Chris Sanders, communications director for Alabama Arise, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income residents.

“It’s certainly still a very difficult economy. For a lot of people the recession is not over yet,” Sanders said.

Sanders said his organization is also concerned about a looming cut to the federal food assistance program.

The expiration of temporary boosts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Nov. 1 will mean 910,000 Alabamians will see cuts to their food assistance, according to an August report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The Washington-based think tank, which describes itself as nonpartisan, focuses on fiscal policy and public programs that affect low- and moderate-income families and individuals.

For a family of three, that cut will mean $29 less each month in food assistance, according to the report.

“We ought to be looking for ways to help them instead of chopping what assistance they do have,” Sanders said.

But while those needing help with food and child support have increased, the number of children in foster care in the county declined by 27 percent since 2007.

Alabama Department of Human Resources spokesman Barry Spear said the number of children in foster care in Calhoun County dropped from 321 in July 2007 to 234 at the same time this year.

Spears said that drop is the result of a focused effort to get children in DHR custody into permanent placements with their own families, when possible, or with new families through adoption.

“We’ve been able to work very hard to get those numbers down,” Dresser said.

The department did so with limited staffing, Dresser explained.

Dresser hired 12 workers last month, a momentary break from the hiring freeze the department has been under since 2008.

She’s able to hire now when the need can be justified, Dresser said, but “before, even if you could justify you couldn’t get them.”

The five new social workers, six financial support workers and one clerical staffer mean smaller caseloads per worker, she said.

Dresser said working in social services can be overwhelming at times, but that social workers are often drawn to the field because of their deep desire to help others.

“I tell everybody that this job is a calling for me,” Dresser said.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.

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