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Director of County Agency to Trade Desk for an Easel

September 22, 2002|CATHERINE SAILLANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County's social workers were in open revolt. Foster parents were quitting in disgust. The public was furious that a toddler in protective custody had been returned to her parents, only to be slain by them.

This was the tumult Barbara Fitzgerald confronted when she took over the county's social services agency five years ago. Fitzgerald concedes now that the task ahead was unsettling.

But she didn't dwell on it. She got to work. And by most accounts, the 5-foot leader with stylish gray hair and twinkling eyes has accomplished an impressive turnaround in an agency that provides help for abused children, poor mothers and isolated seniors.

Fitzgerald's calm leadership and open-door attitude have pulled the Human Services Agency back together, supporters say. The result is a work force doing a better job serving the area's poorest and most desperate residents.

"She has the toughest clients to serve," Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long said. "You can't do that job without feeling the stress of it. But she has been able to build faith, loyalty and morale. And she has been able to get everyone to focus on their mission."

Now Fitzgerald, 57, says it's time to hand the job over to someone else. She surprised many at the county's Hall of Administration last week by announcing she will retire early next year.

After 34 years with the county, Fitzgerald said she wants freedom to travel with her college-age son and indulge a renewed passion--painting.

"It just has gone by in a heartbeat," Fitzgerald said. "And by and large it's been great. But now it's time to try something else. I tell everyone I'm going to have a second career as a famous artist."

Her long years in social service came about by chance.

Born and raised in Madison, Conn.--"a small community where everyone knew everybody"--Fitzgerald dropped out of college and took off on a cross-country road trip with a girlfriend.

They wandered the country, taking waitressing jobs in Dallas and Tucson when they ran out of money. After eight months, they ended up in Goleta because Fitzgerald's traveling companion had a friend there.

When the traveling companion went home, Fitzgerald decided she liked the look of California and stayed.

After doing a couple of odd jobs, she applied for a $269-a-month account clerk position with Ventura County. Fitzgerald remembers her first day as unsettling: The man who hired her had died over the weekend.

"It was a little ominous," she said with a chuckle.

Always good with numbers, she worked her way up through the auditor's and county executive offices. She moved on to what was then called the Public Social Services Agency, working mainly on the business side.

Along the way she married John Fitzgerald, a colleague in the auditor's office, and gave birth to a son. The couple later divorced, and Fitzgerald has not remarried.

At the office, internal problems had been brewing for years. They came to a head in 1996 when social workers held a news conference to protest what they called overwhelming workloads.

Foster care parents were also criticizing then-agency Director James Isom as unresponsive to their frustrations.

That year, a social worker recommended that a little girl who had come into protective custody with broken bones, bruises and cigarette burns be returned to her young parents. The public responded angrily after 2-year-old Joselin Hernandez was beaten to death by her father a few months later.

Isom resigned in May 1997, and the Board of Supervisors selected Fitzgerald as his replacement. Since then, she has instituted a number of changes at the county's third-largest agency, which has a $151-million budget and 1,050 employees.

She reformed the process for returning children younger than 5 to their homes after allegations of abuse. Instead of relying chiefly on caseworkers' recommendations, doctors, police and prosecutors are now also brought in on decisions.

She oversaw reforms in the county's welfare programs, setting up a system that gives aid recipients training in job skills along with a monthly check.

And she started an education program to help clerical staff earn degrees in social work. She had already earned her own belated bachelor's degree in business economics and knew how hard it was to juggle a full-time job and classes.

By "growing her own," Fitzgerald said, she solved the chronic problem of social worker shortages.

The biggest change, supporters say, was the woman herself. Where Isom's management style could be low-key and remote, Fitzgerald's was to listen, respond, get involved.

"If it weren't for her, I would have quit," said Carolyn Gyurkovitz, a Thousand Oaks foster mother.

"We were on the verge of just saying to heck with it. But she told the social workers, 'You will listen to your foster parents.' And if they didn't, we would just give her a buzz and they would start working with us."

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