A day after her forced resignation, Baltimore County's director of social services said that her relationship with the county executive had been cool for months -- especially after the starvation death of 9-year-old Rita Fisher in June.
Camille B. Wheeler, who has headed the department for 19 years, said yesterday that she failed to satisfy the county executive's desire for dramatic change in response to public outrage over Fisher's death.
"I didn't handle my conversations with [C. A. Dutch] Ruppersberger very well," Wheeler, 56, said, adding that she never felt she communicated well with the administration. "I tried to help him understand that in this business, this child welfare business, tragedies will occur, and he did not want to hear that.
"It's a tragedy, it's a nightmare. But it's like the police saying there will never be a murder. The reality is that we cannot enter into the family's dynamics in every terrible situation that we face and know whether or not evil abounds."
Ruppersberger denies that the girl's death played any role in Wheeler's resignation, which he requested Tuesday.
Ruppersberger won't criticize Wheeler but said he wants a director who will emphasize teamwork with other county agencies. "Social services is not an island in and of itself," he said.
Wheeler's resignation sparked a spontaneous protest from about 20 social workers who marched to Ruppersberger's office Tuesday afternoon and met with him to express their dismay and shock. They say Wheeler -- who will leave her $88,097 job by March 1 -- is being made a scapegoat in the girl's death.
Reports of abuse of the child were received by social services. Investigations by state and county officials found no fault with the department's handling of the case.
The child weighed 45 pounds when she died, and an autopsy found evidence that she had been tied up and beaten.
Her mother, an elder sister and the sister's live-in boyfriend are in jail, awaiting trial on murder charges.
Several social services board members also criticized Wheeler's removal -- and the board's exclusion from the discussion.
"This is one magnificent person," board Secretary Saralee B. Stein said. Vice Chairman Walter B. Burrell said he resents the political intrusion into department affairs.
The collective reaction illustrated the common opinion about Wheeler -- that she is no everyday bureaucrat.
A serious woman who usually keeps a low profile, Wheeler developed a reputation in county government for not always following political trends.
When pressed, her intensity has erupted into spontaneous lectures. In a 1986 County Council work session, she endorsed low-income housing as a way to help the transient poor -- though the issue was politically sensitive.
"She's very forthright, very honest and very committed. In our world, Camille is very respected because she is genuine, and she did what she believed," said David Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America, a national association of 900 child welfare agencies.
Even a critic of social welfare programs seemed to agree.
"I would give her an A-plus for standing firm and carrying out her mission. I always admired her for that," said County Councilman Louis L. DePazzo, a Dundalk Democrat who often criticizes programs for the poor.
'Child of privilege'
A self-described "child of privilege," Wheeler was raised near Charlottesville, Va., and later in Birmingham, Ala. She graduated from Goucher College and returned to Baltimore after a tumultuous year in Alabama during the struggle over civil rights.
After a year of library work, Wheeler learned quickly as a young Baltimore social worker that good intentions aren't always enough to help troubled youngsters.
"I was really overwhelmed," she recalled about her career beginnings in 1964. "It was clear to me I could do terrible damage by being unskilled."
Wheeler got an advanced degree. As county social services director, she required all her social workers to have master's degrees.
"We have programs to help children. We have a play therapist, an art therapist -- trained people," she said. "That's what it's all about for me."
Not politically attuned
She acknowledges she's not politically attuned at a time when, she said, elected officials are asserting more control over public social agencies.
"I'm just not one of the boys, and I don't aspire to be, either," Wheeler said of her political skills.
What the county executive wanted after Fisher's death, she said, was a dramatic, quick fix. But Wheeler balked because she said she's not political and felt the department didn't need major surgery.
But an executive staff review of social services after the death recommended closer cooperation on child abuse investigations among teachers, social workers and police -- the kind of teamwork that the county executive said will be paramount under a new director.
John Rusinko, director of Children's Services for Catholic Charities, said he and Wheeler have been teaming lately in an effort by public and private agencies to help children.
Rusinko said, "We have been talking to her about doing collaborative work, trying to break the traditional mold."
Pub Date: 2/05/98