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Taking job fair to the streets

Recruiting from offices in Hawthorne, Los Angeles County officials seek new social workers who know the area and its challenges.

June 17, 2007|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

By the time a social worker is brought into a child's life, warning flags have already been noticed.

Has a child or infant been abused, physically or sexually? Are drugs in the household? Are the children abandoned? Can the parent be counseled? Or do the children need to be placed in foster care?

It can be a tough job anywhere. But county officials said at a job fair Saturday that they have had an especially difficult time retaining children's social workers in South Los Angeles, Compton, Inglewood, Hawthorne, Lawndale, and Gardena.

"It's a very difficult job in the inner city. It can be frightening. You're working in a community some people may be reluctant to enter," said Amaryllis Watkins, a deputy director of the county Department of Children and Family Services.

So on Saturday, county officials took a new tack by seeking recruits at their offices in Hawthorne. They were particularly interested in recent college graduates who have moved back home.

"We want to recruit people from the community who understand it," Watkins said. "We want people to come and stay."

Three hours into the five-hour job fair, more than 300 people inquired about jobs as social workers, assistants and other county positions, and many said they were interested in working locally.

Keturah Baker, 28, lives just minutes from the county office on Hawthorne Boulevard. Baker said she has been interested in becoming a social worker after counseling troubled youth in group homes. She said children might relate to her as a role model, as she grew up in a low-income household run by her single mother.

"My goal is to show children that no matter what situation you're born into, you can make a difference," Baker said while filling out an application. "As a social worker, you're kind of like their parent."

Chantee Nalls-Demar, 26, praised the county for bringing recruitment to Hawthorne. Disparities in access to education and economic opportunities can make it harder for social workers who live elsewhere to relate to children in the inner city, she said.

"When you have [social workers] coming in from the suburbs, they have no idea of the struggles the community faces," said Nalls-Demar, who grew up in Los Angeles and received her bachelor's in social work from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Nalls-Demar also said she hoped children would be able to relate to her experience. She was a foster child and said she was adopted by a loving family.

"I'm an example of being able to succeed," she said.

Prospective social workers were given a taste of what they might face. Veterans warned how parents and children might resist help, shouting obscenities and yelling "I hate you!" The best response was to stay calm and professional, they said.

And social workers need to keep an eye out for signs of abuse, such as determining if an infant's clothing is obscuring bruises.

That environment can take an emotional toll. It's not a job for everyone, Watkins said. But the successes are rewarding.

"You have an opportunity to make a huge difference in [children's] lives," Watkins said. "If we don't deal with these children who have been dealt the unlucky card of having a fractured family, we will pay later as a society."

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ron.lin@latimes.com

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