Social Workers Battle Heavy Caseloads, Workplace Dangers

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2008

As guardians watching over thousands of the city's imperiled children each year, social workers confront armed drug dealers, push past stoned parents, shrug off cockroaches, sit on urine-soaked couches and hug kids covered in scabies.

Social workers in the nation's capital are up against staggering odds. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2005 American Community Survey, the District has the highest child-poverty rate in the United States: 32 percent.

That is a major factor in child-abuse cases, many of which mushroom from one child into a whole cast of dysfunctional characters, said Mywen Baysah, who has been a D.C. social worker for three years. An average caseload of 12 can mean dealing with 50 to 70 people, with siblings and parents.

In one case, she might get a parent into rehab, help the family pay bills and get them furniture, food and clothing. She takes children to school and to the doctor, and she is often the only one to take them out for an ice-cream cone on their birthday.

For the social workers who stay late, put themselves in danger and juggle cases, the Jacks case and the dismissal of six social workers associated with it were knee-jerk judgments on a complicated and insurmountable job.

"This was so bad for us," said Sophia Ferguson, who works for the Child Protective Services branch of the agency. "Morale just went down."

Often, the most seasoned caseworkers have been with the agency just five years. According to a 2003 General Accountability Office study, the average tenure of caseworkers nationwide is less than two years, mainly due to low salaries, high caseloads, the risk of violence, low pay and insufficient training. In the District, a caseworker's annual salary averages about $40,000.

The struggle begins the moment a case is assigned for investigation. Caseworkers must get an agency car, which often is shared by four people. Many caseworkers end up driving their own vehicles.

Finding kids can be the toughest part of the job. "You get the case, then all of a sudden, they're gone," said Katrina Spearman, a social worker with the city agency for two years. "You continue to go out and search, you leave notes."

And schools don't always help. If a report, often made anonymously, has a child's name and neighborhood, but not an exact address, the social worker goes to the school seeking answers. For privacy reasons, schools often will not provide an address without a release form signed by a parent.

In the anti-snitching culture of some neighborhoods, a social worker at the door means one thing: "They think we're there just to take their kids away," Spearman said. "But I have to tell them that I want to work with them so they can get the child back. That is the goal."

Sometimes, they find unlikely allies. Baysah remembers one such case.

"I had a client who was a drug user," Baysah said. "One day, her drug dealer ran up to me and said: 'I know you're her social worker, she's not doing so well. I wouldn't leave those kids with her.' So you just never give up on who can help."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company