By Ed Brock
A typical workday for Maria Ham is filled with tragedy and hope.
It will be three years this March that 42-year-old Ham has been a caseworker and investigator for the Clayton County Department of Family and Children Services, and on the job the New York native does not cut corners.
"If you're going to be a good investigator you have to put your all into your work," Ham said.
Ham did somewhat similar work in New York as a caseworker for a private adoption agency. She went from that to being a youth outreach advocate in the Poconos in Pennsylvania.
"I held programs in schools and local colleges on domestic violence and sexual assault," Ham said.
Then she came here.
"I am coming back to what I always aspired to do which is to work with families and children," Ham said.
That's a subject with which Ham is intimately familiar. She was a single parent for 10 years before remarrying.
"I've experienced a lot of the struggle that many of the families we work with today are experiencing," Ham said. "So I can relate to the clients."
And that relationship can be as diverse as the clients themselves.
"We deal with all different people from all different parts of life," Ham said.
Many of them are simply isolated from support from the community and from their family, Ham said, either for cultural or personal reasons. She can be called out to investigate any number of circumstances, from neglect and abuse to inadequate supervision.
Sometimes the clients cooperate, and sometimes, like in a recent case, they do not.
"She was just really resistant," Ham said, though she could not release specifics on the case. "She was one of those people I just couldn't get through to. That's one of the downsides to my work, when I don't feel like I've made that positive impact."
A visit from DFCS doesn't have to be a bad thing, DFCS Deputy Director Chuck Fischer. They do everything they can to avoid removing the child from the home.
"Any time you take a child away from somebody you're putting yourself at risk," Fischer said.
That can be especially risky since DFCS investigators are not even allowed to carry mace, Ham said.
"They do train us to be able to effectively deescalate the situation," Ham said. "People's radar goes up when they hear DFCS. But you can get through that if you can talk to people. It's a matter of respect."
In some cases they have to call in the police. The Clayton County Police Department has an excellent relationship with DFCS, said Capt. Alton Anderson, head of the department's Crimes Against Children Unit.
"They do an outstanding job considering the number of cases they have to deal with," Anderson said.
And the caseload per investigator is an issue that DFCS agencies around the state are working on.
"DFCS case managers have an overwhelming amount of cases resulting in a tremendous responsibility," Ham said. "Community services are lacking and DFCS is implementing changes at the state and local level to address current issues such as caseload levels and employee turnover. Hopefully those changes will lead to improvements."
Recently each DFCS office has been asked to report the number of caseworkers they have with more than 30 cases and to explain why they have such a heavy case load, Fischer said.
"National standards dictate that you really can't do an effective job if you have more than 15 or 20 cases," Fischer said.
DFCS' goal now is to get the average caseload to 25 per caseworker, Fischer said, which is still not ideal but "who gets to have ideal situations?" They also plan to get tablet computers for the caseworkers that would allow them to do more work while still in the field, Fischer said.
More community support such as counseling and financial assistance services would help reduce the caseload as well, Ham said.
"It just seems like things are getting tougher on people," Ham said.
In the end, with 2,500 referrals coming in to the department a year and only 10 percent of those being screened out before they get to caseworkers, Ham is the first line of defense, Fischer said.
"She does a risk assessment and determines if the child can stay in that home or has to be placed somewhere else for safety," Fischer said.
Ham's experience makes her very valuable in a field in which many of the workers are just out of college, Fischer said.
And difficult as it may be some times, Ham said it's more than just her job, it's her calling.
"I've learned not to internalize these things," Ham said. "I guess I've pretty much come to terms with what I do and I try not to let it affect me. But it is troublesome to me when I see the things I do."