Rosemary Alexander knows what it takes to live through a crisis. When her 6-year-old daughter was sexually molested by a youth near their Prince George's County home two years ago, she first turned to the courts for help.
But the 13-year-old youth was acquitted, Alexander said in an interview last week, and her daughter was traumatized. Alexander then began to take the girl to the Sexual Assault Center that operates out of the Prince George's General Hospital in Cheverly, where they both saw counselor Patricia Waldron for therapy sessions.
But last summer, Alexander said, Waldron told her that because of scarce resources, the center did not provide for long-term therapy and could no longer help them.
"We'd been put in this situation whether we liked it or not," said Alexander, 42, who now pays $40 per visit for a private counselor for her daughter as opposed to the $15 she used to pay per visit at the hospital. "And nobody seems to care if we can afford the children's help."
County social workers and bureaucrats say that because of financial constraints, problems such as Alexander's are becoming common and even the limited follow-up counseling that Alexander and her daughter received is now hard to come by.
"It's a mess," said Margaret Mead, a counselor who until recently worked at the Sexual Assault Center. "An absolute mess."
For the Prince George's Department of Social Services, a state-funded arm of the Department of Human Resources, the problem is a chronically high vacancy rate -- now running at nearly 50 percent -- among its staff of social workers, particularly in the area of child protective services. Social workers also report low morale and high staff turnover.
At the Prince George's General Hospital in Cheverly, the 12-year-old Sexual Assault Center is handling an increased caseload with half the staff it once had, and is under attack by elected officials and former employes who charge that recent management changes there have placed patient care at risk.
The 20-bed Family Crisis Center in Brentwood turned away 92 people during a 12-month period that ended in May because every available space was taken. It is the county's only overnight shelter for victims of domestic violence at a time when media reports and law enforcement efforts have contributed to a steady increase in reports of spouse and child abuse.
During the best of times, these three agencies work in an interrelated fashion, sharing caseloads and expertise as they shepherd individuals and families through the police and court systems.
But Henry Gunn, who has been the director of the Prince George's Department of Social Services for the past seven months, said in an interview recently that the problems the county faces in providing for victims of abuse is "way past the critical stage," because of a tangle of money, staffing and bureaucratic problems at the local and state levels.
Resources are strained on several fronts. Only 26 of the 53 social worker positions that are funded for Prince George's child protective services unit are filled, Gunn said. Statewide, the vacancy rate for social workers is between 8 and 9 percent, state officials said.
Gunn and agency workers said they have been unable to fill those jobs because experienced social workers with master's degrees can make thousands of dollars more each year merely by commuting across county or state lines to higher-paying jobs with identical responsibilities in Montgomery or Fairfax counties.
"We run an ad in the paper for MSWs masters in social work to come live in the highest cost area of the country and start off at $15,400," Gunn said. "Right below that are ads" that show Fairfax County offering more.
Prince George's pays the lowest starting salary for entry level social workers in the region, according to figures supplied by five area jurisdictions last week. Montgomery County workers, for instance, earn $21,500 and Fairfax County pays $20,200 in starting salary.
The protective services workers also complain that they do not have the supplies to do their jobs properly; they cite inadequate phone lines in the Hyattsville offices and scarce stationery supplies.
"You literally have to beg for pencil and paper," said Vivian Wilner, a 16-year veteran of the Prince George's department who is leaving the protective services unit in September to return to school.
Wilner said that they are now "providing Band-Aid service, just hitting the crisis situations."
For Wilner, her colleague Esther Herman and the others, this means that they respond to reports of abuse within 24 hours and to reports of neglect within five days.
But after that first contact is made, the workers said, follow-up investigations often fall by the wayside as they turn to new emergencies.
All of this comes at a time when reports of abuse are up nearly 25 percent statewide, according to Frank Farrow, the state director of the Department of Social Services.
State Secretary of Human Resources Ruth Massinga said that she is "looking closely" at salary levels to determine if they are adequate. In Maryland, counties can choose to supplement the salaries of state employes who work in local agencies. Montgomery does provide this supplement; Prince George's does not, because, officials there say, the financially strapped county cannot afford to.
"I believe the state ought to be paying a fair wage," said County Executive Parris Glendening. The county administration also is philosophically opposed to providing the salary supplements for social workers because, officials said, other state employes working in the county would expect the same treatment. That change, they said, could eventually cost millions of dollars at a time when education and public safety spending are the county's chief budget priorities.
Glendening said that the county's problem in providing for victims of abuse was compounded recently when Prince George's General Hospital administrators decided to fire Dr. Lin Bessett, who had run the Sexual Assault Center for nearly seven years.
"I think that was just flat out wrong," Glendening said.
Hospital administrators said Bessett was fired as a cost-cutting move but some elected officials and other health care professionals have said that the firing was politically motivated by officials who did not get along with Bessett and wanted to merge the center with the hospital's emergency psychiatric unit.
That merger also brought the resignation of Patricia Waldron, the center's senior counselor, who had been working there for nine years. Both Bessett and Waldron said that the center, which used to have six full-time workers, is now staffed by two full-time and two part-time professionals and is running crippled.
"Where it's falling down is the follow-up counseling," said Waldron, who now works part time at similar facilities in both Howard and Montgomery counties. "They can meet the immediate needs, but they are ragged out."
Bessett served on a county domestic violence task force and has been asked to be a member of an ongoing domestic violence coordinating council that Glendening is forming. She said the services in the county that are available for victims of various types of domestic physical abuse "cannot possibly meet the needs of all of the people who need help."
"It's the old tip of the iceberg type thing," she said. "The services we're providing now are really in need of expansion in order to meet the growing need in the county."
Sue Song, the psychiatric nurse who now heads both the sexual assault unit and the hospital's emergency psychiatric program, plays down the problems that both Bessett and Waldron say exists at the hospital. "I don't have a problem about manpower," she said. "I don't feel overwhelmed."
But service providers all say that the county is overwhelmed by a lack of emergency housing for victims of domestic violence. The Family Crisis Center in Brentwood, which operates with government and private funds, is the only such facility in Prince George's. Its services stretched to the seams, in a former school building near Rhode Island Avenue, the center turned away nearly 100 persons in need of a place to stay last year.
"An awful lot of money would have to be pumped into it for some time in order to reach an adequate level of service," said James Hubbard, a county Chamber of Commerce official who serves as the center's president.
Ellen Freeman, the executive director of the shelter, also points to low pay as a reason that she has not received a single applicant for a counseling vacancy at the shelter, even though she has been advertising for three successive weeks.
Gail Bagaria, a public defender who represents the families of children involved in neglect and abuse cases in the county court system, thesaid the problems of poverty, lack of affordable housing, neglect and abuse often feed on one another, and the results spill over into the foster care and juvenile court systems.
One former Prince George's County social worker who left the county to work in a neighboring Maryland jurisdiction after five years, said the strain she has observed in the Prince George's system is only increasing.
"It's a tough job even when you have full staffing," said the social worker, who did not want her name to be used. "It's worse in Prince George's County."