Originally created 09/22/96

The shadow over Aiken Co. DSS



AIKEN - Tragedy seems to have a home at the Aiken County Department of Social Services.

Between November 1991 and August 1994, four children were killed while in foster care or being monitored for child abuse by county social workers.

A change of command appeared to usher in better times, and Aiken County DSS Director Margaret Key in recent months has had some good news to report about efforts to improve the foster care system and recruit new foster parents.

Then David Mark Hill walked into the North Augusta satellite office and police say he shot three social workers in the head.

Josie Curry, 35, and James Riddle, 52, died at the Medical College of Georgia Hospital. The body of Michael Gregory, 30, was found in a bathroom at the DSS office.

"I would hope something like this would bring people closer together," said Jerry Adams, spokesman for the state DSS office in Columbia. "Who knows why this happened, if it's an aberration?"

Aiken County has gone through a lot in recent years, but the DSS spokesman says the agency has grown stronger.

"This is a set back to be sure but we'll be back," Mr. Adams said. "We may lose some people over this. There'll be people who can't come back over this. Statistically we can expect that."

Letters went out Thursday to DSS agencies statewide telling employees to look at their cases, take nothing for granted, and if they get threats to report them to the police, Mr. Adams said.

A former caseworker, who asked not to be named, said she was glad to know the agency was changing its unspoken policy of ignoring clients' threats.

"It used to be `oh, they're outraged and just spouting off.' Don't worry about it," the caseworker said. "There needs to be a line drawn and apparently they're doing that now."

David Liederman, the executive director of the Child Welfare League, said the phenomenon of violence in the office, at DSS or elsewhere, is something new. Everyone is reviewing office security, he said.

There have been isolated cases of violence at social service offices in the past years but Mr. Liederman said he knows of only one instance in Baltimore where a social worker was murdered at work.

"Social workers are underpaid, overworked and they get blamed for everything, and now they're putting their lives on the line," he said. "We need to attract competent, compassionate people to do that, and it's dangerous. Offices will need to look at their security without making it a fortress."

But the shock of Monday's events gives everyone pause, even Mr. Liederman who has more than 35 years experience in social work.

"I'm not sure I'd go back," he said.

The death of Tanya Brown O'Neal on June 18, 1991, prompted changes at the Baltimore City Office of Social Services, said Sue Fitzsimmons, manager of the public information for the agency.

The intake worker was the first state employee, outside of law enforcement employees, to be murdered on the job in Maryland, she said.

The suspect was a mentally ill man who had stopped taking his medication. It wasn't a case of a client retaliating against his caseworker, however. Ms. O'Neal was in the wrong place at the wrong time, Ms. Fitzsimmons said.

Her assailant was ruled incompetent to stand trial, she said.

"We have improved security (since the murder)," Ms. Fitzsimmons said. That includes adding guards and metal detectors but also looking at office design.

"Before you could be cornered (at desks) by clients," she said. "Interviewing booths have access on both sides now."

Kay Mixon, director of the Cumbee Center for Abused Persons, feels a special sympathy for the Aiken County DSS. Her agency often deals with volatile situations, and in April 1995, the unthinkable happened.

A distraught husband shot and killed his estranged wife, Sabrenia Neal, after luring her to an Aiken attorney's office. Ms. Neal, 36, had been staying at CAAP's emergency shelter.

Reflecting on Monday's slayings, Ms. Mixon said, "I would want to be even more supportive (of DSS). That could have been my agency. ...You don't know how people are going to react. I would never point a finger. Look how often that happens at a post office. It's not just DSS. It could happen any place."

How people cope with trauma varies, and DSS staff and the community can help bring people together by not being judgmental, Ms. Mixon said.

"It's something only time can heal," she said. "There's no magic word. No potion you can spread around. We all react to trauma in different ways and don't be critical because people may not react the way you do."

The DSS office in Aiken re-opened on Wednesday. Officials say crisis counselors who met with about 100 staff members the day before will be available for employees for the next few weeks.

"It's going to take some work to get the ship back on even keel," Mr. Adams said. "We've been hit hard by this."