Social workers share stresses of their clients

Employees indicate tension level grows along with caseload

`A big responsibility'

Howard County

April 04, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

For Susan Glorioso, the low point came late one Friday night when she had to drop off a young, abused girl at a children's hospital, all alone.

"Leaving her there at 10 p.m. It just doesn't shut off," the veteran Howard County child protective services social worker said of her emotional connection to her cases.

Her co-worker Iona Lewis reached the edge of her professional aplomb rushing to the hospital with a 3-month-old boy who had been shaken violently by a parent angered by the child's colicky crying. "He was lifeless," she said, but he survived.

"I had a 4-month-old nephew. I called my sister and wanted to hear my nephew. I talked it out," she said of her stress over the case.

Stressful calls are not unusual for social workers in the world of child abuse and neglect, but with abuse reports and caseloads rising, so is the tension level - even in wealthy Howard County.

Instead of the national goal of 12 to 17 cases per worker set by the Child Welfare League of America, Howard's child protective workers are handling 30 to 40 cases each, while state budget woes have slowed the hiring of workers, social services officials said. And the volume of calls is not letting up, said Kathy Pinto, chief of the county's unit.

Abuse investigations in Howard County are on track to be 30 percent higher in the current fiscal year, ending June 30, compared with fiscal 1998, county officials said. Two-thirds of the reports come from schools, where teachers and counselors are trained to watch for signs of abuse and neglect.

Not all the cases originate in the lower-income sections of the county, social workers said.

"We investigate in the Route 1 corridor and in million-dollar houses in the western county," Glorioso said, noting that financial stress and the confusion of more complex, blended families have made cases tougher to resolve.

Abuse and neglect cross every economic, racial and ethnic line, noted Lewis.

Still, Howard County is not Baltimore or Washington, and although many social workers burn out, working in the county is considered "pretty cushy" compared with social services work in other jurisdictions, Pinto said.

The cause of the rising number of reports is not clear, but school and social services officials said they suspect - and hope - more reporting, not more abuse, is primarily responsible for the increase.

Lewis and Glorioso said they are dividing their cases by immediacy of need, giving priority to the most pressing situations. By law, social workers must respond to a report of abuse within 24 hours, but follow-up contacts are taking longer as the cases pile up.

The decisions about who can wait and who cannot are based on years of experience, the women said.

One client said he believes he is getting effective service.

A former New Yorker - a father whose children were being physically and verbally mistreated by their alcohol-abusing mother - said the Howard social workers have helped his children cope with their difficulties. The man and his son moved to Columbia after the September terrorist attack in New York to join his wife and their two daughters, who had arrived earlier.

"My kids have been through a lot," he said, describing how his teen-aged daughter had been abused, had been exposed to alcohol misuse through her mother's friends and was not sleeping. An alert school counselor noticed her distress, talked to her and called social services after getting her to discuss her problems.

Prompt response

A worker and a police officer from Howard's Child Advocacy Center responded within a day and, after interviewing the father and the children, told the mother she had to leave - that night.

"They did for me what I didn't know how to do," the man said. His children have been doing better, he said.

"They miss their mother, but we have peace," he said, adding that the social workers have remained supportive. "I can call them whenever I need them. If this was New York, I wouldn't have gotten that support," he said.

The Sun is not identifying the family members to protect their privacy.

`Make sure kids are safe'

Glorioso, who has worked on child abuse cases for more than 10 years, and Lewis, who came to Howard County in late 1999 after five years in the District of Columbia, said they are mindful of a public perception that social workers are heartless bureaucrats who take children from their parents.

That's not the reality, they said.

"Your job is to make sure kids are safe, and that's a big responsibility. The public doesn't understand," Glorioso said.

Lewis recalled a case of incest between siblings that a mother did not want to confront. The mother became "frantic" because the children had to be separated, complaining, "I knew this was going to happen if we reported it," Lewis said. But the social workers said they believe that she missed the point - that the county's intervention is not about a by-the-book response to an incident. It's about the future of each family member.

Experts say children often learn physical and sexual abuse from adults in their families, and then behave the same way when they grow up. Secrecy only perpetuates and compounds the problem.

"It's their defense mechanism, a coping system," Pinto said of the secrecy. "It's about losing control and feeling guilty."

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