ORANGE COUNTY IN BANKRUPTCY : Children to Feel Pain of Budget Cuts, Staffers Say : Impact: County would not be able to respond to many cases of abuse, neglect and sexual molestation, social workers warn.


When the county Department of Children's Services slashes its budget as a result of the bankruptcy, abused children who used to receive attention will be ignored, social workers warned Monday.

"Our concern is that children are going to suffer unnecessarily, and unfortunately some of them are going to die," senior social worker Christine Ford said. "Maybe there are some things they can legitimately cut. But they can't cut children. Children can't stand up and take care of themselves."

Taking the brunt of budget cuts, according to social workers, will be emotionally abused children, latchkey kids over the age of six, children who may have been sexually abused but don't bear the physical scars, and numerous cases of general neglect.

Social workers will hold a news conference at 11 a.m. today at the Hall of Administration to sound the alarm and release strict criteria they may have to follow when answering calls of abuse if budget cuts are as severe as anticipated.

Preliminary budget figures released by county officials early this month indicated that the county Social Services Agency--which includes children's services--would be reduced by 47.8%. Those figures were tempered after department heads appealed, but the severity of the cuts to be made remains unclear.

The county's interim chief executive officer, William J. Popejoy, is expected to brief the Board of Supervisors tonight on the county's fiscal picture and is working to finalize budget cuts.

But child abuse workers say that even with less dramatic cuts, more children are sure to fall through the system's cracks.

"Are we going to be accomplices to child abuse?" asked senior social worker John Gonzalez. "If we get a call from a 7-year-old who is neglected at home and we say, 'Sorry, we can't answer that,' does that make us accomplices?"

Supervisor William G. Steiner, former director of the Orangewood Children's Home for abused and neglected children, said the board will do whatever possible to minimize the impact on children.

"There are varying degrees of victimization. Just like an emergency room has to save lives, our child protection service is going to have to focus on the most desperate cases," Steiner said. "Probably a dirty home or lack of parental supervision is not going to be responded to. Period."

The dramatic budget reductions come in the wake of a grand jury report last year criticizing staffing levels at the Child Abuse Registry--which takes calls reporting abuse 24 hours a day. According to that report, the hot line was so clogged with unanswered calls that one-fourth of callers hung up.

Staffing was since increased, but social workers now fear the services will be cut back.

The preliminary criteria for which calls would no longer get a response are based on worst-case budget figures and were circulated to social workers earlier this month.

Workers then conducted their own analysis, applying the criteria to all calls received last September. Of calls that would have gotten no response at all, 39% were substantiated abuse cases, Ford said.

Steiner said social workers have "legitimate concerns . . . that some children will be jeopardized by these cuts.

"The board has already been clear that the priorities are public safety, health and welfare," Steiner said. "Notwithstanding that commitment, the county's financial situation is so terrible that preventive programs simply are probably not going to survive."

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