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STRUGGLING TO PROTECT CHILDREN : The Front Lines : Fight Against Child Abuse in Orange County Begins With a Phone Call


It's a Thursday morning, and Connie Weinman is waiting for the phone to ring.

So are five other social workers seated in cubicles at the Child Abuse Registry in Orange, ground zero in the county's system for dealing with abused and neglected children.

Calls to the registry hot line come in unpredictably. Weinman says they sometimes get 10 calls within two minutes. Other times, like this morning, they wait for the phone to ring.

But not for long.

"Child Abuse Registry; may I help you?" Weinman says into her headset, pen poised to take notes. "Can I get your name, ma'am, or do you want to report anonymously? Why don't you tell me what's happening? . . . What do you mean when you say he drinks heavily? OK, so you've never seen him sober. OK, what's going on? Did he ever hit the kids? OK, where is Mom when this was happening?"

The call is the sixth this morning. And it's only 9:45. By the end of the day, social workers will have taken 127 reports. Some days they receive more than 200 calls a day. And every year the hot-line phones ring more frequently.

In 1994, the Child Abuse Registry received reports of alleged abuse and neglect on 45,129 Orange County children, representing 19,632 families--a nearly 23% increase over the previous year.

The rising number of reports alleging child abuse is due, in part, to an increase in public awareness and the growing number of mandated reporters--people who have been required by law since the early 1980s to report suspected child abuse. Animal-control investigators--who have the opportunity to observe family situations--are among the most recent additions to the list of mandated reporters, who range from physicians and teachers to child-care providers and photo developers.

As a result of those 45,129 reports, 1,886 children were taken into protective custody.

The vast majority of child abuse reports are made by these mandated reporters, mostly school officials and health care professionals. (Because schools are one of the primary sources, the number of reports drops in July, August, December and January, when schools are out of session.) But the registry also receives calls from relatives, neighbors and passersby.

Although child abuse spans the economic spectrum, a definite link exists between an increase in reports and families experiencing financial difficulties, says Gene Howard, until recently director of Children's Services and now director of the Orangewood Children's Foundation. "The level of [child] neglect reports rises in a poor economy," he says. Financial strain on families "oftentimes can lead to physically abusing kids because parents can lose their temper and are more stressed out during those periods."

Cuts in the Program

At a time when the number of reports is rising, the county bankruptcy has caused the Social Services Agency to reduce staff and funding for its Children's Services division, a child welfare program that has been considered one of the best in the state.

* Because of the cuts, social workers who investigate the reports and provide services to families must now deal with at least a 25% increase in caseloads. Depending on circumstances such as the time of year, some caseloads may even grow to twice the normal size.

* Funding for the voluntary maintenance program for families whose children are considered at risk for further abuse has been slashed, reducing the number of clients being served in half to 3,000 and cutting social worker salaries and benefits by $1.5 million.

In all, the Children's Services division was reduced by 74 senior social worker positions, 18 of which were part of the family maintenance voluntary program, in which social workers intervene early in cases of abuse and neglect.

In the wake of the county bankruptcy, a group of social workers presented a proposal in July to separate Children's Services from the Social Services Agency to help ensure that funds for Children's Services are spent on the prevention of child abuse as opposed to administrative expansion. The plan, which includes fewer management positions and an unspecified increase in front-line social workers, emphasizes preventive services that can deal with family problems before they become severe enough to require that the child be removed from the home.

"The main aspect of the proposal is to keep the front-line jobs at their highest possible level, because that's where we impact the community," says Gary Govett, a senior social worker and member of the proposal committee. The plan has been presented to Social Services Director Larry Leaman and to County Supervisor William G. Steiner.

* Funding for contracted community organizations providing intervention services has been cut about 25%, or about $500,000.

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