BURN OUT HAPPENS dangerously fast at the Department of Social and Health Services. After just two and a half years as a caseworker for DSHS, a $5.2 billion state agency, this month's Exit Interviewee fled her job last July. An overwhelming caseload (managing an average of 25 troubled youths at one time) and minimal support from management left her questioning the state's commitment to its most needy population.

After getting her master's in social work from the University of Washington, she says the DSHS in South Seattle made her "hate being a social worker" because she wasn't "given the tools to even maintain a reasonable level of safety" for the kids.

Before leaving, our ex-DSHS employee, who asked to remain nameless, topped out at the highest pay rate for a state caseworker--$40,000.

Perhaps her insights could help explain why DSHS has had so many legal run-ins lately. (In the last six months alone, three multimillion-dollar lawsuits over DSHS screw-ups have made daily headlines.)

Describe some of the cases you had.

I'd say the most common kind of case is just a situation where a parent doesn't want to deal with their child anymore, due to being financially distraught and emotionally distraught. We get a lot of runaway kids. They're running away; they're living on the street; they're doing drugs; they're stealing. And usually they can't stay at home because they're being abused or sexually molested. I interviewed a seven-year-old little boy in an elementary school, and he told me his mother wraps duct tape around his arms and head and duct-tapes him to the wall when he's being rambunctious. And she wouldn't talk to me. She told me, "I'm a very busy woman; I can't talk to you."

Did DSHS give you the resources to deal with all these cases ?

I needed better foster homes. I've seen people hang onto their foster-parent licenses long after they should have been taken away. There is a woman right now who runs a receiving home, who is on an oxygen tank, and she sits there with an oxygen mask on her face because she's old and frail and sick. Without adequate foster homes, we have to send kids back to bad homes. We had this 13-year-old kid who was suicidal and her mother was neglectful of her, and I ended up sending the kid back to the mother; and now the girl's living on the street. I see her living on Broadway all the time.

How else is DSHS falling short?

I needed better access to mental-health services. We have kids coming in who are fetal-alcohol-affected, which means they have frontal lobe damage, and they are really difficult to manage. Basically, we're putting mentally ill kids in standard foster homes. I had a kid with some fetal-alcohol stuff going on, and simply brought him to a receiving home, and he just tore up the house. When we have a kid who comes into our care, we need psychological and medical evaluation of that kid--immediately. And we don't get it.

Is this a simple question of providing more funding?

More funding and better management. For one thing, the taxpayers are paying social workers to do a lot of clerical work. I spend four hours at the copier, copying files, because it's like a two-month wait to get it done by our copy person. So you end up doing that sort of stuff yourself.

Did you ever bring your concerns to management?

When I talked to our area manager about it, I was just told that, yeah, that's the way it is, and it's not going to change anytime soon. During my first year and a half, I would be in at 6:00 a.m. and work 10-hour days. And I just got exhausted. I stopped caring about my job.

When you get social workers, DSHS administrative staff, and upper-level administrative staff at the same meeting, the social workers are literally spilling over with emotion. They're all stressed out. And the administration is just sort of standing very aloof, sort of embarrassed that the social work staff are falling apart right in front of their eyes. The turnover rate there is tremendous. We had eight people come and go in one department in two years. When I got my new job, everybody came by my cubicle and asked me how I got out. I mean, that's how they were putting it: "How did you get out?"

Do you think that DSHS provided adequate training for this job?

You know, they told me you're not supposed to have a caseload during your first month. Well, I got a caseload right away. So they don't follow that rule at all. You're thrown in, and it's sink or swim.

And DSHS says:
Morale is low because of recent staff reductions. There isn't a policy to wait a month before assigning caseloads, they say.

If you'd like to do a Stranger Exit Interview, contact josh@thestranger.com or call 323-7101.