Much praise has often been bestowed in my articles and elsewhere upon our law enforcement and correctional officers. As it should be.
Also and likewise upon our firefighters, EMT’s, ambulance, flight and search and rescue services. As it should be.
As someone who has worked with and been a fellow witness to their equal dedication and invaluable service these past couple years, you can put that praise in all caps to another entity of inestimable value to our community.
All that said, there is that segment of governmental service that gets little to no due acclaim or accolade. Add to that, unmanageable caseloads, long hours, egregiously low pay compared to their other graduate degreed county workers and percipient exposure to subject matter guaranteed to pierce the hardest of hearts. Without hesitation or equivocation, I speak of our Social Workers.
If this article has a genesis, it would have to be a torrential rainy and cold New Year’s Eve 2009. I had been a contracted Del Norte County public defender for a year, when I received a phone call late that evening from a former client. I was told that he and his wife had been involved in an alcohol fueled screaming match that had escalated into a shoving match that echoed through the walls of a relatively and well known squalid and law enforcement frequented apartment complex. The city P.D. had arrived and, although no arrests were looming at the time, the officers were demanding to know where their screaming infant, now gone, was and that social services had been called. Given a few moments alone by the gracious officers, I was told that the baby was next door in an equally desultory motel establishment that, at that time, easily fit the definition of a “shooting gallery,” dope frequented place.
As that conversation was ending, there was a brief knock at the door. My former client opened it and we were all introduced, standing in the pouring rain, minutes before midnight, to Emergency Response Team Social Workers, Cindy Salatnay and Sheila Davis, who I already knew and in the following seven years would better come to know in my role as a public defender, district attorney and Yurok Tribe social worker.
Davis and Salatnay, better and fondly known as “Cagney and Lacey” in the first responder and law enforcement communities, accompanied me next door in the nasty inclement weather to the hereafter unnamed motel (and apartment complex) to the room referenced by my former client. I knocked on the door, standing to the side, knowing the reputation of one of the occupants charged with sequestering the 9-month-old baby for weapons possession. A deep throated, dusky voice asked who was there upon my third knocking. I announced my name and encouraged the responder to call and check with his friend next door for the legitimacy of my and Social Services sudden appearances.
I was told he had just received such a call and the door was cracked to reveal a scene, surreally and oddly reminiscent of the baby Christ in the manger. No lights on, the room lit by one candle on a bedside nightstand, hauntingly revealed the swaddled infant in the middle of a made up bed surrounded at each corner by four arms crossed, tatted up men focused intently on the cracked door. Knowing one of them, I announced my name, saying, “You just got the call... and at least one of you know I’m here doing a solid for your brother next door. The ladies with me are County Social Workers. They’re good people, they’re on the square and you can trust them. They already have a good placement for the baby with a family member, a Grandma, and you have my word you can trust them. I want you to let them in to take the baby.”
Looking in, I could see one of the babe’s protectors possessed of a shamrock tattoo, indicating affiliation with the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang. The voice responded, “Yeah, we know you and ----- says ‘you’re good.’ We’re not sure about the chicks with you.”
Cindy and Sheila fearlessly went to the door and announced, “----- and Jon have told you who we are. We’re not here to do anything but do what you’re doing — protect that baby, so we’re on the same page. Just like you’re doing, we have a job to do which means we need to come in and see the baby and get (it) handed off to Grandma. We have no interest in seeing anyone put in ‘county’ tonight, the police have far too much on their hands already this evening. We just need to do what you’re doing which is protecting that infant and we’re asking you to do that. We haven’t told the cops where we are or they’d already be here, so you should figure out you can trust us. We’re asking you again, please let us do our job and everyone walks away on this New Year’s Eve knowing they did right by ---- and that baby.”
The door was shut, muffled conversation was heard, the door totally opened and the guy with the AB tatt said, “Yeah, that’s cool, c’mon in. Do what you gotta do. We’re OK with you.”
Salatnay and Davis slowly and decisively, showing no fear, entered the room. Cindy said some comforting words to the stirring babe and Sheila looked each face in the eye, saying, “Thanks, you guys have done a good thing. Grandma’s here. Happy New Year’s.”
They walked out of the darkened motel room, flickering in the candlelight to deliver the infant to the waiting grandmother and then back to their offices to write up their report as 2010 ushered in.
It was a scene, emblematic and illustrative of the courage, compassion, human decency, guts and guile, I would come to personally know and witness of these two remarkable women and their colleagues in the following seven years.
Social workers and the emergency response teams, literally on call 24/7, are charged with the protection and analyzation of the welfare and reported endangerment of all children in Del Norte County and across America.
They work with families to address those concerns, always seeking thereafter to obtain the initial goal of family reunification. Having worked with and among these tireless and undaunted testaments to Abraham Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature,” how many of us could, without the abject invocation of cruelest antipathy, retain the slightest indicia of compassion or empathy for the perpetrators of acts resulting in the abuse, much less death, of our most innocent victims that daily these remarkable souls witness and are charged with embracing and assisting.
Indeed, while it is within the ken and quiver of all social workers to divine that spark of humanity, leading to an unfailing belief in the capability of rehabilitation of those persons inflicting such acts and acceptance of their duty to invoke it, how many of us on a daily basis experiencing such brutality or grossest negligence and indifference, could not grow numb or demand harsh retribution. I know of no perfect definition of Christian acts or doing God’s work, but that comes as near as possible for me.
Additionally, notwithstanding the mental exposure and drain occasioned by the aforementioned, another cross these courageous people bear is the routine response of physical danger and verbal abuse they encounter. Notably, sans any of the protective pieces and arms possessed by law enforcement and probation officers, I know not of one social worker in this county that has never been threatened with blunt force trauma or worse while in the pursuit of their job.
Also, as a 14 year blessed recipient of a 12 Step program that saved my life, I can say first hand that during that decade plus exposure in “the rooms” of that program, from judges to law enforcement to probation, there is literally no more frequent vilification of any entity or personage than that of the social worker.
It is a thankless, much maligned job. It is a calling, much of it advanced degreed, that encounters far greater case numbers, recidivism, less victories, demonstrably less pay and potential for burn-out than any of its legal or law enforcement counterparts. And yet, they suit up, show up and do their assigned task every day.
As program manager of Del Norte Social Services, Crystal Nielsen, shared with me this past week, “Being a social worker is not a job for the faint of heart. It can be heartbreaking, traumatizing, frustrating and rewarding — all at the same time. Some social workers choose this profession, sometimes the profession chooses them. However, the common denominator is Hope.
“Social workers strive to gain knowledge at great lengths to fulfill the meaning of hope. Many of our social workers have received their bachelor’s and master’s degrees to better serve our community.”
In 2014, after a much publicized blacklisting, I had the blessing of being hired by the Yurok Tribe as one of its social workers. Additionally, I had the ultimate privilege and honor of working under former Yurok Social Services Director Millie Grant. Indefatigable, tough while compassionate, possessed of an innate ability to locate and dispense justice, throughout my entire professional career, only former Orange County District Attorney Head of Writs and Appeals Bill Bedsworth, now an associate justice on the Fourth District Court of Appeals and recent recipient of the American Board of Trial Advocates’ first annual William W. Bedsworth Judicial Civility Award, could rival Grant in those categories.
Under the tutelage and direction of Grant and my assigned partner, the highly respected Patti Lewis, I came to the role of social worker. In my 30-year role of trial attorney, both prosecuting and defending persons charged with crimes ranging from misdemeanors to capital murder, I came to be involved in a case that brought as much satisfaction and pride as any.
After a weekend visitation with some children who had been removed from a family member subsequent to the parents’ excellent strides in reunification, it was brought to my attention that the family member had on Saturday absconded with the children and were allegedly heading for a Midwest state, never to be seen again. It was also learned the children were being hidden, while enroute to that destination, in a rundown, unpaved trailer park somewhere across the Oregon state line.
The following day, on Sunday, I drove to the referenced town and drove through four of its more unseemly trailer parks. In the last one, I located the vehicle owned by the offending party. While walking the surrounding property, I was accosted by an individual possessing a long gun, demanding to know my reason for being there. I told him my name, title and purpose. I was then told, in certain language inappropriate for reprint here, to leave the grounds.
I called Director Grant at home and relayed my experience, along with my firm belief, that the involved party would be absconding that jurisdiction in the very immediate future.
Grant, who usually carpool commuted to Klamath daily, agreed to drive from her Hoopa residence early the following morning. In that early hour, we went over the case once again. She consulted with the Yurok Tribal Court on the legality of obtaining the children and saving them from the possible impending departure.
She was told it was their opinion not to do so. We met again. I told her of my opinion that Article I Section III of the Yurok Constitution extended jurisdiction to “all of its members…wherever located.” I further told her that it was my opinion if we didn’t act immediately, the parents who had done a remarkable job of overcoming their previous difficulties, might never see their kids again.
To her everlasting credit, Grant took less than two minutes to consider the matter, override the contrary opinion and direct me to take whatever action I could to return the children.
With that directive, I contacted the appropriate Oregon Josephine County Social Service Department, conveyed our concerns and applicable legal grounds for their assistance. Moments later, I left Klamath with a social service colleague, Tamara Scott, in hopes of retrieving the children. Upon arrival at the trailer park, we encountered a stand-off between the already arrived local social workers and the offending party(s). I reiterated our reasons for requesting their assistance. I also approached the trailer, from which a horrific odor of cat urine continued to be emanating. I requested them upon witnessing that for our Josephine County number to effect the children’s removal from the trailer, which they did.
One of them had a nasty cut on his hand, while the condition of the trailer was deemed to be unfit for living by the children. With that in mind, those courageous social workers took custody of the children and conveyed them to our possession for return to the parents back in Klamath.
In an instant which I can only characterize as a “God shot,” the following occurred on the ride back to Klamath and was witnessed by my colleague, Tamara, that day. The children were naturally traumatized over the events involving the absconding, removal and retrieval. Somewhere on the way home, the subject of one of their favorite videos, “The Lion King,” arose. To make them feel better, I would occasionally place the van in neutral, rev the engine and tell them there was a lion under the hood. Just as we began descending the hill before passing Wilson Creek Beach at the north end of Klamath, the children, for some uncanny reason, began talking about camels.
Immediately after passing the beach, Tamara, said,”Jon, did you see the camels on the beach?”
I told her that was a bad joke and might upset the kids. She assured me there were camels on Wilson Creek Beach. I told her I’d turn around but it better be accurate. I did and, low and behold, there on the beach, which the children could not have seen at the time they began talking about camels, were three large camels with handlers.
We parked the van. I spoke to the handlers and found out they were traveling from an Oregon small town circus appearance to Mendocino County for a show. They agreed to allow the children to approach the camels, which brought unbridled delight to these beautiful and tossed about kids, making our job and the transition far less encumbered.
It was an affirmation, I continue to suspect that only God conveys on a regular basis to my dear friends and former colleagues in their province as social workers.
As Sheriff Erik Apperson related to me this past Thursday on the topic, “I have had the privilege of serving as a first responder in our community for the greater duration of my adult life. When much else has failed, these courageous people continue to pick up the pieces and with human decency and unflagging energy, create recovery, rehabilitation and the reclamation of lost souls and families. I have had the honor to meet and bare witness to the actions of more heroes than I can keep count of. In all honesty, I can say that none surpasses that of the social worker, whose role is one of the life bloods of this and any other community.”
As a former trial attorney, social worker, public defender and district attorney, I could not agree more with Apperson.
Jon Alexander lives in Fort Dick and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .