Virginia Frandsen's two children have a general idea of what she does. But when it comes to details, she is purposefully vague. "I tell them a little," she says, "but any more would be too hard for them to handle."
What Frandsen doesn't discuss is the painful world she sees each day as an investigator for the children's services division of the county Public Social Services Agency of Ventura County.
Each month, Frandsen responds to an average of 22 new allegations of child abuse or neglect, usually from schools, neighbors, police officers or health care workers. Occasionally, her office is notified by a family member.
"Sometimes we get 50 or 60 calls a day," she says. "Some are filed away if there isn't enough information, and we screen them later. But others we go out on immediately. If the child needs protection right now, we don't wait."
The work is emotionally draining. Frandsen says the burnout rate among social workers is high. Nevertheless it is a mission to which she is committed.
"Children have a right to be provided for and cared for and to live in a healthy environment," she declares.
Frandsen used to work in the county's Family Maintenance Division, which ensures that children are not abused once they return to the home. There, she said, she became aware of some of the conditions that tear families apart. And, as a former home-assessment worker who spent four years screening potential adoptive families for the county, she learned of the difficulties of putting new families together.
But Frandsen says there was nothing in her training to prepare her for what she has witnessed when entering some homes for the first time.
"I've seen infants with fractures on their skulls, their arms, their legs. I've seen rotting food on stove tops and garbage strewn throughout the house, with no clothes for the children and no food. I've seen mattresses soaked with urine . . . and the children dressed like barefoot ragamuffins.
"But the saddest thing is, a lot of times the kids will make excuses for the parents," she says. "They try to tell me why Mom couldn't do something, or that they really do have clothes, but they're in the car. The kids are trying to protect their parents."
Frandsen's responsibility is to assess the conditions in which a child is living and to determine whether the child is in emotional or physical danger. She then must decide what steps should be taken next.
"There are some kinds of problems that jump right out," says Doug Miller, head of the county's Childrens Services Division. "The child has physical-abuse indicators like broken arms or legs, or facial or head injuries.
"Other times it's not so clear. The problem is, we have to be in court within 72 hours to defend our actions," he adds. "We have to have substantial evidence . . . that the child has been abused, is in jeopardy or is in a neglectful environment. If the investigator can't defend it, we have a problem."
Frandsen says it is common to get calls that turn out to be groundless. Sometimes the false alarm arises out of a custody dispute in which one parent is simply being vindictive. Other times, she says, callers jump to conclusions and "just don't have the whole picture."
When children have been abused or neglected, several steps may be taken. Parents may be asked to choose between voluntary participation in counseling and parenting classes and having the court take further action. Or children may be placed in foster care immediately, with parents' visitation, which can take place within the foster home or elsewhere, monitored until the child is no longer considered to be in danger.
"Sometimes we monitor the parents here," Frandsen says, pointing to a small room across from her office that is furnished with a worn sofa and a two-way mirror. "We listen to the way they communicate with their children. Sometimes they'll threaten them here."
In a system that is overburdened, under-funded and understaffed, Frandsen says she knows that not all children who need help will get it as quickly as they should. And some may not get it at all.
But she feels she makes a difference.
"In this work, you don't have high expectations. But I always think that maybe I will make a small change, that maybe there will be some resolution.
"At least," she adds, "I have to hope so."