We can't get off cheaply in potecting our children


May 01, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

Translated from dollars into words, I would say the people of Baltimore County have a cut-rate commitment to protecting children from abuse. For a man or woman who goes through college and graduate school, attaining a master's degree in social work, the starting pay as a foster care worker in Baltimore County is about $24,000 a year; the county's 30 or so social workers start at about $28,000. After five years, both jobs top out about $35,800. Any surprise, then, that the county has a shortage of social workers in foster care and Child Protective Services? Any surprise that the turnover rate in those two areas is between 15 percent and 22 percent?

I just thought I'd point that out, given the new round of sarcastic criticism raining on the county's social work force in the wake of the Rita Fisher murder case.

A social worker viewed her job so narrowly that, at one point during trial testimony, she actually spoke the words: "My purpose was not to protect Rita from abuse."

The level of moral outrage over that statement -- and the apparent failure of the county social work force to protect Rita Fisher -- is justified.

But while we're screaming about what happened in this case, let's look at the larger picture, at our commitment to protecting children. The truth is that, except in some counties that more generously support social workers -- Montgomery pays up to $55,000 a year -- we don't invest that much in the service.

You can tell a lot about a culture's priorities by what it's willing to pay for something.

Do the social mathematics on child abuse in Baltimore County, and it's clear we're trying to get off cheap.

The level of social worker pay is not commensurate with the nature of the work, the huge responsibility, the stress and, yes, even the social stigma of being a social worker. The profession suffers from cultural and political criticism. Social workers are frequently attacked on right-wing talk radio, mocked as left-leaning meddling social engineers who themselves must be unbalanced to take on such a dismal, thankless job for meager pay. Parents despise them. Judges think they do sloppy work. Foster kids think they don't care. They have to deal with school officials, police officers and psychologists who frequently don't respect their work. The case loads are insanely heavy.

A few years ago, the National Center for Children in Poverty invited a Prince George's County social worker, Dorie Arbach, to speak to a congressional group about her life in protective services: "We often make decisions under very difficult circumstances. We often observe extreme fear in children who show no current physical signs of abuse. We observe emotional abuse that can defy imagination. . . . We see abuse in affluent and middle-class families, too. There we often see even more parental indignation and self-righteousness. We often hear: 'Yes, I beat my kids, but I don't abuse them.' We interact with clients who possess little or no understanding of appropriate parenting. . . . We are required to meet hostility and disarm it if we can."

Big job. Tough job. Lives-at-stake job. But we're trying to get it done cheap. To quote a home improvement contractor I know: "It's just like anything else. You get what you pay for."

Wildlife, etc.

I guess I asked for it -- wildlife sightings in the city or near-burbs.

A reader in Catonsville says he and his daughter saw a big ol' beaver waddling down Edmondson Avenue (in the slow lane) one warm night several weeks ago. "I was so startled," says Will Teeler, "that we did a U-turn and followed it for five minutes at a respectful distance -- and at less than one mile an hour -- until it trundled up onto the sidewalk and into the trees beside someone's house. I thought it was a woodchuck or large raccoon at first, but that large, flat black tail was unmistakable." . . . In recent weeks, a mother fox has been leading her pups across Bellona Avenue in Ruxton from a den in brush along the side of the road. Some kind Ruxtonian erected a handmade sign warning drivers of the frequent trots. . . . And Betsy Blose is pretty sure she saw a dead sheep near the athletic fields of Northern High School, off Northern Parkway, on the northeast side of the city. "I saw it there last Friday," she says. "It had no flesh anymore, but the curly wool was still there and the hooves and the face. It was a sheep." No one has yet explained what the sheep was seeking at that altitude.

A big fish story

Barbara Mikulski, our 59-inch U.S. senator, caught a 42-inch rockfish during the 41st annual Water and Woods Ball, held aboard a fleet of charter boats out of Tilghman Island, with hosts Capt. Buddy Harrison and veteran outdoors writer Bill Burton. Mikulski hooked the fish aboard Harrison's Pleasure Merchant on Saturday, the biggest catch on her boat. Babs is getting to be quite the angler. I hear there's talk about her own bass-fishin' show. I'd like to take her trout fishin' and smarten her up on the catch-and-release philosophy.

This Just In appears each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact columnist Dan Rodricks at 410-332-6166, by electronic mail at TJIDAol.com, or by post at The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

Pub Date: 5/01/98

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