In Search of a Clear Conscience, Worker Left

By Sari Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 9, 2001

Just before he resigned from the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency in July 2000, social worker Charly Mathew attended a hearing before D.C. Superior Court Judge Zinora Mitchell-Rankin, the former head of the court's family division.

The judge stepped down from the bench, hugged Mathew and said she wished he would stay. A lawyer in the courtroom had a suggestion.

"Issue a court order," the lawyer said. "Prevent him from leaving."

But it was too late. Mathew and scores like him have left, complaining that they cannot properly care for all the children under their watch. Many took jobs at other social service agencies in the District and surrounding jurisdictions. Mathew is now a social worker in Maryland.

At 34, Mathew was considered a star at Child and Family Services. With a reputation as an industrious, highly organized worker who was passionate about helping children, he was a favorite among judges, child welfare lawyers and colleagues. When the agency had a tough case requiring close attention, agency supervisors and judges often turned to Mathew.

"Charly Mathew is such a gem," said Anne Schneiders, a child welfare lawyer who worked with him. "Everyone inside and outside the agency adored him."

During his four-year tenure, Mathew had rewarding moments -- helping parents get drug treatment, reuniting children with their families, "seeing the joy in the eyes of a child" after an adoption.

But Mathew, who at one point supervised 70 children, said he and his co-workers found themselves juggling crises, leaving little time for the children. Small things became big problems. Workers wasted time recovering files from the bureaucracy. Sometimes they couldn't get agency cars to visit families, he said. It was virtually impossible for social workers to make the required visits, Mathew said.

"Visits to children were put on the back burner," he said.

When a child died under the District's care, workers "reacted like a family losing a loved one," Mathew said. Workers dreaded learning the name, fearing it might be one of theirs.

To keep up, Mathew worked long hours, sometimes arriving home past midnight.

"I would wake up thinking, 'Have I seen all the children enough?' " he said. " 'Have I made the necessary appointments? Are there court orders I haven't complied with?' "

By early morning, he would have to be in court.

Last year, Mathew discovered something disturbing. While serving on an agency committee set up to examine foster-care contractors who were paid $100 a day per child, Mathew and his colleagues said they found that the private therapeutic foster homes were failing to properly care for children with emotional and behavioral problems. Mathew also said he discovered that the contractors were hiring unlicensed workers.

Mathew said he alerted top agency officials but received little response.

He left when the agency decided to expand the role of the contractors.

"I didn't want to be part of that," he said. "I wanted to have a clear conscience that I was doing everything in my power to see that the children were being protected."

Mathew said he still worries about the District's children and stays in touch with his former co-workers. He said they are hopeful about their new director, Olivia A. Golden, and want to form a task force to advise her.

"They know how to make the agency better for children," Mathew said. "I hope she listens to them."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company