The slaying of a social worker at a West Baltimore office should not be seen as an isolated incident that is unlikely to happen again, members of a city advocacy group said today.
Board members from Operation Life, a 10-year-old non-profit group that operates out of a rowhouse in the 2100 block of Boone St., said they warned Department of Social Services Director Shirley Marcus last month that relationships between clients and workers were dangerously strained.
Workers are carrying larger caseloads because of the state hiring freeze, while the recession forces more people to seek services, said Operation Life President Annie Chambers. The result is an overburdened system where human decency becomes a luxury, she said.
"It's a real hot time in the city and we're not talking about the weather," said Chambers, who has been both a client and a worker. "We say it's [the murder] not isolated. We say it can happen again. . . . "
Tanja Brown O'Neal was stabbed to death Tuesday morning while interviewing a client who was upset about not receiving food stamps. Arnold Bates, a 34-year-old man with a criminal record and a history of emotional problems, was charged with first-degree murder.
"We feel, while it was an unfortunate incident . . . clients have been portrayed very negatively," Chambers said. "The average client is not a drug addict. The average client is not a drunk. The average client is someone who doesn't understand the bureaucracy."
Chambers and Operation Life's director Delores Anderson, also a former DSS worker, described how it took them two months of fighting to help a client obtain emergency food stamps, which are supposed to be available within 72 hours. Clients at the news conference described interminable waits, rude workers and episodes of sexual harassment.
Marcus has been responsive to Operation Life's concerns, Anderson and Chambers said, adding that Marcus said she would ask her board to seek involvement from clients as the agency re-evaluates its delivery of services.