This social worker shows dedication despite overload few of us could shoulder

January 18, 1998|By Elise Armacost

LAST MONDAY wasn't a hard day, as days go, for Kathleen Harrison, a child welfare worker with Baltimore County's Department of Social Services. A quick trip to court for a case involving a father who injured his baby, an unproductive trek through the east side to investigate one report of sexual abuse and another of neglect, an interview with the baby-sitter of a little boy who had been beaten.

As the afternoon wound down. Ms. Harrison worried aloud about that sexual abuse report; she suspects she will find things you and I would rather not think about. But the case with the injured baby has resolved itself as well as one could hope; the father appears committed to building a better family life. The little boy who had been beaten has gone to live with a relative, where he appears to be safe. She will sleep all right this night.

She doesn't always: ''It's unbelievable, the things you hear. Sometimes I have nightmares.''

She has been yelled at, cursed at, threatened. She has seen children covered with welts and scars, left alone, living in filth. She knew a first-grader who couldn't spell his name but described precisely how to smoke crack.

A few times, when she has known beyond all reasonable doubt that a home was dangerous, she has asked for (and always received) the court's permission to remove a child for placement in foster care. The experience is invariably harrowing. The children almost never want to go; the parents are often hostile.

At least in those cases, she went to bed knowing the children were safe, at least for a while. Most of the time -- when kids seem poorly tended but not threatened, when no one in the family tells a consistent story, when she just has a bad feeling -- she can't be sure.

This is not, of course, what you and I want to hear. We want certainty. Last year we were rightly outraged when a 9-year-old girl, Rita Fisher, whose family had been under supervision by the Baltimore County Department of Social Services, died from horrible abuse. How could this happen, we asked? Why was she never removed from the home? Shouldn't social workers do that if there's any doubt about a child's safety? People asked in letters to the editor and on radio shows. I wrote as much myself.

By the end of the day Monday, however, that seemed a little naive. I left the courthouse optimistic about the family with the injured baby. Still, there is no getting around the fact that no one can guarantee its well-being. ''There is always going to be doubt,'' Ms. Harrison says.

She is only 28, blond, blue-eyed and calmly committed. This is her first post as a child-welfare investigator since earning her master's degree in social work. She spends 45 to 50 hours a week on the job. At a time, she handles 20 to 25 cases; the Child Welfare League of America recommends no more than 18. In a field where burnout is common and turnover high, she is in for the long haul, preparing for doctoral programs, thinking about policy. She believes its best for the child to live with his family while social workers help his parents, but says parents get too many breaks. She believes in less leniency for drug-abusing parents, more consequences for anyone who hurts their kids. Only one of the parents she has dealt with has ever gone to jail.

Ms. Harrison makes about $30,000 a year. This is not a field people choose for the money, but even so, the salary is so incommensurate with the stresses it is no wonder the county can't fill a few extra positions approved to handle an increase in child abuse reports since Rita Fisher's death.

''We are constantly caught between being too invasive and not protective enough. I don't think people have any understanding of what a balancing act that is. They think it's all black and white, but a lot of times you just don't know. People are magnificent liars, and you don't always know what their agenda is.''

Is there a custody battle, with one parent accusing the other of abuse in a bid to get sole custody? Are you dealing with drug abusers protecting a drug source? Is a child lying when he says he was bruised in a fall to protect a parent he loves, abuse or no abuse?

And how do you -- an interloper from the government -- cultivate enough trust to convince people to accept you into their homes and let you help for awhile?

Even on good days, the burden is greater than most of us could bear.

Elise Armacost is an editorial writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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