'Nothing wrong with the people'

The Baltimore Sun

Molly McGrath had been chief operating officer of the Baltimore Department of Social Services for about nine months when she was promoted to the position of director in September. Since then, McGrath, 41, has been working to reform the huge agency.

A career social worker, she says it takes simple things - like turning up the ringer volume on the phones - combined with the more ambitious statewide strategy of keeping children with their families, to make a difference.

McGrath acknowledges that she has her work cut out for her. Earlier this year, the agency came under fire over the 2007 death of a 2-year-old who was found to have ingested methadone. The toddler's troubled mother had countless contacts with more than a dozen city social services employees. At least five staff members were disciplined or fired for their handling of the case, and the agency's director, Samuel C. Chambers, resigned.

Tell me about your first experience with social work.

My first experience was community organizing in the coal fields of West Virginia. I was 19. After college, I was on the front line for seven years. I joined a child welfare agency in Chicago. I never wondered what I wanted to do with my life.

What was it like to work in West Virginia?

In the mid- to late 1980s, West Virginia was a really desperately poor place. Working there - it was important to me as a young person in helping me to frame my thinking about America. [This country] isn't always doling out opportunity equitably. People really struggle in desperate poverty. To see that, it was clear to me there was something wrong with the system.

After college, what kind of work did you do in Chicago?

For years, I did case management of families at high risk of losing their children. It was a very intense effort to stabilize families, and it helped me to learn that by far the very best place for children to be is with their families.

As every caseworker has or will have at some point, I buried a child on my caseload: Dwayne, whose mom was mentally ill. I had a meeting with them the Thursday before it happened, and I remembered thinking the whole time, "There's something wrong with the baby." But I couldn't tell what it was. The baby wasn't being fed properly, and he died of dehydration. It was a terrible time, and the people around me could tell how it affected me. At that point, I had a lot of my friends saying to me that maybe I should be in a different line of work, something less stressful. And I said, "No, I just want to be better at this one."

How did you come to be in Baltimore?

It was a bit of a circuitous route. I was selected as a 2001 Annie E. Casey fellow. I spent a year in D.C., and they were exiting federal receivership. Then I went home to Chicago to help families transitioning out of public housing. There, that really drove home the point: There's nothing wrong with the people. There's something wrong with the system, and it's correctable.

A position opened up in Baltimore, and I came here as the chief operating officer. This is an extraordinary moment in Baltimore for reform of the child welfare system. The governor is supportive. The mayor is insistent. It's really like lightning in a bottle, this kind of opportunity.

What do you think of Baltimore so far?

Baltimore is fabulous. My first night, I met the owners of Three ..., a restaurant in my neighborhood. They still remember my name. That doesn't happen in Chicago. I know all of my neighbors. I walk down the street and know people. Everybody's friendly. That's why we call this Charm City. And the weather is better.

In terms of the department, it's no secret that Baltimore City DSS is facing a lot of challenges. I am proud to be the steward of that organization. I have every intention, for as long as I am welcome here, to do my part.

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