Helping hand of Howard departs

Marshall was director of county social services for three decades

July 31, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Samuel W. Marshall has successfully navigated Maryland's bureaucratic waters for four decades, but as he retired this week as Howard County's social services director, he worried about what he is leaving behind.

After three years of state job freezes, budget cuts and the sudden firing of an assistant director last month, Marshall fears that the local autonomy he is used to is changing, and not for the better.

"I think the Republicans are going to cut social services to the bare bones. It is not a priority," he said about Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration in Annapolis.

Like some other Maryland counties, Howard has lost more than 30 percent of its social services staff since 2001, and lately Marshall has found himself excluded from important decisions - such as the firing of Kathi H. Heslin and the choice of an interim director.

"I don't know what my role is, as seen from Annapolis," he said.

Local directors have long acted as advocates, he said, for the people they help and for staff members. But Marshall said state Secretary of Human Services Christopher J. McCabe, a former Howard County state senator, has not seemed receptive to a free exchange of views.

Norris West, McCabe's spokesman, said the secretary "is very interested in making sure that local departments of social services feel like they are part of the Department of Human Resources," although he said he knows they also need flexibility. At the same time, West said, "social services haven't been immune from the state's budget problems."

However, West promised that "the safety net will be intact."

Heslin, a 28-year state worker, was fired with just minutes' notice after telling local board members of a crushing workload because of vacancies, and of the state's refusal to fill clerical jobs even though Howard County would pay the salaries.

McCabe last week named an interim director for Howard County - ignoring the suggestions of Marshall and County Executive James N. Robey. Robey and McCabe are to meet next week to discuss a permanent replacement for Marshall, Maryland's longest-serving local director with 30 years in the county.

The controversy follows Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's protest that he was not consulted when McCabe chose Floyd R. Blair as interim city social services director. A city Circuit Court judge sided with O'Malley, giving city and state officials 45 days to choose a mutually agreeable director.

Despite recent developments, the friendly man an employee called a "teddy bear" at a staff farewell party late last week still likes the job.

"I like what I'm doing. I feel good at the end of a day if a kid was adopted, people have a place to stay, or a family has food. You get enough bennies [good feelings] from this job in spite of the obstacles," Marshall said.

That attitude comes through, others said.

"His heart is in everything. He never became cynical. Sam has remained pure," said Andrea Ingram, who for 15 years has operated Grassroots, the county's private crisis-intervention center and homeless shelter.

Through the turmoil of welfare reform and the stress of state budget cuts, job freezes and firings, "he understands the struggle," said Dorothy L. Moore, director of the county's Community Action Council and a poverty fighter in her native county since the 1960s.

"I'll miss Sam," Moore said, recalling an occasional soul food lunch with Marshall and Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director, at the Log Cabin restaurant in Jessup.

"Do you need to have some soul?" Moore said they would ask themselves. "Every now and then, we'd feel the need."

Lately, Marshall has needed all the soul he could muster, but it was his enduring qualities as a leader, advocate and coach that came out at the staff party, where he was teased about his poor memory for names, and his fondness for boxing and fishing.

"It's like, we're a family here. He's like a teddy bear," said Joan Cass, a 20-year veteran of child support services.

"He always makes you feel relaxed. He's just a wonderful person," she said, as Marshall, smiling, received a giant brown pillow made to look like a Hershey bar - his favorite snack. The entire staff had signed a white patch attached to the back.

Even McCabe, who came late to announce his choice of Doris Mason as interim director, praised Marshall, recalling his service in 1982 on Howard County's Foster Care Review Board.

"Obviously, there's a lot of affection in the room for you," he said, after telling the 62-year-old Marshall: "You are a good soul. You deserve your freedom."

Ironically, a much younger Marshall turned down the Howard director's job when it was first offered him in the summer of 1974, a decade after he took a summer job as a social worker's assistant in Prince George's County, his home, after graduating from what was then Morgan State College in Baltimore.

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