When Janet Washington began working as a nurse in the child abuse section of Children's Hospital nearly three years ago, she approached the job with the spirit of Joan of Arc nipping at her heels.

"I was going to save the world and solve its problems," Washington said with a wry smile.

A year later, Washington quit her job -- the victim of burnout.

Burnout -- the result of increasing pressure and stress on the job -- is taking its toll on child protection workers in the Washington metropolitan area.

"More and more cases of burnout have been recognized in the past six years," said Vanett Graham, director of the Child Abuse and Neglect Resource Center.

Burdened by rapidly expanding case loads, budget cuts and unmet expectations, once idealistic social workers like Washington are leaving the child protection field in droves, according to Graham.

The number of reported child abuse and neglect cases, according to the National Humane Society, has increased tremendously during the past four years.

"I was emotionally drained," explained Washington, who now works as an occupational health nurse. "I would spend weeks and months on a case -- overextending myself -- and never get farther than a quarter of an inch."

"I finally decided to quit." Washington said, "when I dreaded facing another case."

In addition to the emotional exhaustion, said Washington, who is 29 and has one child, she gained more than 20 pounds, was constantly tired and fought with her family during the year at Children's Hospital.

"I didn't know how to separate my job from my life," she added.

Washington's experience is typical, Graham said. Mental and physical exhaustion, a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, an aversion to further work, weight gain and irritability are all signs of burnout.

It must be remembered, counselled Graham, herself a victim of burnout, that child protection workers operate under constant stress.

Jumping from one crisis to the next, child protection workers sometimes feel as if they are caught in a bottomless whirlpool of human misery.

"As a child protection worker," Graham explained, "you see some of the worst cases of human degradation. There is so little dignity and so much hostility at times."

Graham turned to administrative work when she found herself planning to lobby for legislation that would castrate all sex offenders and child abusers. At the time she was counseling a father who had raped and violently beat his young daughter.

"I had lost my sense of professional objectivity," Graham said, "and could no longer be of help to my client."

Graham said in addition to the dilemma of trying to treat both child and offendeer, child protection workers face increasing workloads. It is not unusual, Graham said, for one social worker to be handling from 4o to 80 cases at one time.

"Sometimes, a worker has all she or he can do keeping the names straight," Graham said.

"It's rather ironic," said Freddie Vaughn, Child Abuse and Neglect Resource Center researcher, "that we can bail out Chrysler, but can't seem to make any investment in our only real resource -- our children."