It was the end of her business day, but the children's social worker had been detained. She was dealing with one of the normal but wholly unpredictable crises that arise when you make a living helping kids whose parents burn them with cigarettes or leave them unattended because the crack pipe is more compelling than the baby's hungry cries. The social worker's department has long lists of mandatory tasks; to fail in their execution is to court reprimand or worse.
Her own child, meanwhile, sat at the day-care center, waiting. By the time the social worker finally arrived, her child's caregivers were exasperated. They were ready to report the social worker for neglect. To her own department.
The story, recounted by a group of children's social workers with whom I met the other day, may be apocryphal, but it's telling.
And it is one of many you'll hear if you talk to the overburdened and underpaid men and women who work for the county Department of Children and Family Services.
They might bend your ear about the judge who just issued an arrest warrant for a social worker who was so buried by work she forgot or was unable to submit a court report. Or they might tell you about the new hire they know who would rather reimburse the county his $6,000 internship fee than stay in a job guaranteed to bring plenty of heartache and heartburn and not nearly enough joy.
It's tough being a children's social worker in this town.
Often, they are the first "official" workers called to the scene of terrible human suffering. Often, they are the first, as one social worker put it, "to see the pain a child's eyes, to give a hug."
And just about the only time the public hears about the Department of Children and Family Services is when a child dies and people start pointing fingers: Who recommended what? And why? And what should they have done differently?
As one four-year veteran put it: "We're in a lose-lose situation. We're either 'baby snatchers' for removing kids from bad homes, or 'baby killers' when we don't and something awful happens."
Notes from my interview with the social workers:
"We don't really do social work. We do paperwork. We don't have time to do counseling."
"It used to be you could take a kid out and talk, but those days are gone."
"We don't have the opportunity to build a rapport with the kids. And the way our cases work, the children shift categories so often that by the time the child leaves the system, they've had so many social workers they don't know who we are."
"You end up doing mediocre work. I go home every day and night and think: Did I do that right? I worked last night until 3 a.m. on a court report. If we could give adequate attention, we'd be at ease. But we can't sleep. We dream our clients. I think about them when I am showering, driving."
"We absorb the sadness, the despair, the brutality and violence. There are so many incredibly courageous people in so many dangerous situations."
"They always skirt the issue of high caseloads. High caseloads is the issue."
"I am supposed to have 48 cases. I have 66 and am getting four more. In my office, three workers are leaving. That's 180 cases to be dispersed among the remaining five workers. I love my job but the stress is forcing my hand."
"I would be willing to take a pay cut to get more social workers in here."
"Who do you choose that doesn't get service? And did you just choose the child who dies?"
To be fair to the department and its outspoken director, Peter Digre, who came to town in 1991 with a mandate to fix an almost irretrievably broken system, care of the county's abused and neglected children is improving. And fewer are dying.
Digre brought structure and purpose to a department that was once on the verge of being taken over by the state for incompetence.
But along with his directives and requirements--that children must be visited once a month (even if they live out of the county with relatives), that background checks must be run on every adult in a household (including regular visitors), that every structure on a piece of property must be examined, and so on and so forth--has come a sense of fear and intimidation.
Last year, eight workers were fired for problems ranging from criminal behavior to gross neglect. The firings prompted 300 social workers to demonstrate in front of their department headquarters nearly three weeks ago. Their main complaint: As long as caseloads remain outrageously high, children cannot be properly monitored. And why should social workers pay with their livelihoods for problems beyond their control?
Last week, Digre circulated a memo in which he acknowledged the department's problems and social workers' concerns.
"Every day you come to work knowing that a child will be saved from pain or want . . . because you were there," he wrote. "Countless tragedies do not occur because you are there to prevent them."
A nice message. And one that Digre should deliver often, not just in the wake of dismissals and demonstrations.
* Robin Abcarian's column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.