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ORANGE COUNTY IN BANKRUPTCY : Social Workers Make Plea to Save Abused Children Programs : Crisis: They implore the county not to carry out planned cuts they say would endanger some of the most vulnerable residents.

March 01, 1995|LISA RICHARDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hoping to head off budget cuts they say would deprive many abused children of needed assistance and protection, several county social workers called a press conference Tuesday to tell how beaten, neglected and sexually abused children will be turning to the county for help and receiving no answer.

The social workers said that the Child Abuse Registry, which screens all reports of abuse, would be required to ignore all but the most dire cases if proposed budget cuts are implemented.

Under one budget scenario, the county would no longer be able to investigate cases of neglect involving children 6 or older, girls 14 or older impregnated by men, children exposed to domestic violence or children with suspicious injuries but no proof of abuse.

"We're concerned that we may be accomplices to child abuse by not going out on certain calls," senior social worker John Gonzalez said. At least six children died of physical abuse in the county in 1993 and 1994, Gonzalez said, and refusing to look into reports of abuse could lead to more deaths.

"To let anguished cries of our children go unanswered, that is not Orange County," said therapist Sharon Wolf, who also spoke at the conference.

Gene Howard, head of the Social Services Agency's children's services program, said he had not completed recommendations for budget cuts to the county's new chief executive officer, William J. Popejoy, and it is still undecided which prevention programs will be cut.

Howard estimated that 10% to 15% of children's services work is related to abuse prevention, but he said even those efforts come as the result of trauma to a child.

"Very little to none of what we do is primary prevention--we don't intervene prior to something having happened," Howard said. "We receive reports, then we respond. And to the extent that that reduces potential for further abuse, you could call that preventive."

According to budget figures released by county officials early this month, the Social Services Agency is slated to take a 47.8% cut. Since the proposed cuts were released, several social workers have publicly called for exempting programs to protect children from the cuts. To determine what kind of calls it would not be able to respond to, the child abuse registry applied the budget cuts to all intervention programs not specifically mandated by state and federal law, social workers said.

In addition to some calls about abuse going unanswered, an early intervention program that helps keep families intact probably would be eliminated, said senior social worker Gary Govett.

Govett, who works in the family maintenance, non-court program, said the program allows the county to help families where problems are obvious but have not become so extreme as to require court action.

"We work for six months to a year with families and get them in . . . counseling and parent education and build a support system for them," Govett said.

Of the 6,200 children served by the Family Maintenance program, only 3% of the children ultimately are removed from the home, Govett said.

Once abuse reaches the level where it has damaged a child's emotional or physical well-being, erasing the damage is almost impossible, social workers said.

"There is no real cure for the terror and pain and violence these children have experienced and that lives on in their hearts," said therapist Wolf.

To call attention to the needs of abused children, Govett said, a group of social workers today will begin to fast in half-day shifts.

Also, Govett and other social workers planned to appeal to the Board of Supervisors to leave abuse prevention programs untouched.

"What is the reasoning behind allowing children to be sexually exploited without response?" reads Govett's prepared statement. "I beseech you do not abandon your responsibility to these children."

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