Child Abuse Investigator Can Never Catch Up


Every day, Randy Hart grabs another handful of child abuse reports and walks into an ugly world where fathers rape daughters and mothers starve babies to buy drugs for themselves.

Hart is a Child Protective Services caseworker, and he does what one state employee can to stem a rising tide of child abuse.

But he can never do enough.

Reports of child abuse nationwide quadrupled in the 1980s, from 600,000 cases in 1979 to 2.4 million last year. The U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect blamed the increase on a fragmented, crisis-driven system of social services.

Hart is part of that system. He struggles with a numbing caseload that always seems to stay two jumps ahead of funding.

The state Legislature this year raised the state of Washington's child protection budget, but caseworkers still juggle an average caseload of 32 families, far above the recommended standard of 26.

Hart's job is to investigate reports of abuse, decide what should be done to stop the abuse, and follow through to see that it is stopped. Every time he closes one case, his boss puts a new file atop a 7-inch stack of incoming reports on his desk.

Hart must be efficient yet compassionate, sensitive enough to notice victims' feelings yet thick-skinned enough to subdue his own. Parents fear him as the man who can take their children away.

"Ninety-five percent of them are OK," Hart said. "They may hate me, but they know I'm doing my job. Then there's the other 5%. One guy threatened to cut my head off."

Hart, 37, has grown accustomed to conflict after 14 years in social work. He defuses anger with an unruffled manner and a soft voice that doesn't quite fit his stocky frame. The average child abuse worker lasts only two years. Hart has been at it for six.

"I don't excite real easily," he said.

On a recent autumn day, Hart was hustling from one troubled family to another in southwestern Washington's Thurston County. The day's load of 10 cases is typical:

* A family so poor that the children eat out of neighbors' garbage cans. The parents say they can't afford to drive into town to get food stamps. Hart offers them a ride.

* A retarded man with four children. In July, the children were so dirty they had lice in their eyelashes. Now they are clean, healthy and at the center of their divorcing parents' custody dispute. Hart is plugging for the father. The mother is a drug addict.

* Three children with no father and a mother who is dying of cancer. They are living in the home of a distant relative, a welfare recipient whose own children include two retarded sons and a suspected child molester.

Such cases put Hart in a no-win position. Placing a child in foster care shatters the security that even dysfunctional families provide. But leaving the child in an abusive home can lead to injury or death.

Today's child abuse worker also faces a growing burden of false alarms, such as the neighbor who thinks it's scandalous that the kids next door don't wear mittens in winter.

Hart must distinguish the serious from the trivial, all on a schedule that enforces a brutal efficiency. His lunch is a cup of cola and an apple, eaten on the road. He props a clipboard on the steering wheel, reading cases as he drives.

Social workers learn to distance themselves from others' misfortunes. But sooner or later, the endless stream of suffering children takes its toll.

"Sometime in the next few years, I'll transfer higher in the bureaucracy or to another department," Hart said. "When you do this too long, you hear the same stories so much that it all starts to blur."

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