Co-workers Angered By Broken Trust

Jenny (jennyo@intergate.bc.ca)
Fri, 26 Mar 1999 15:25:30 -0800 (PST)


Published on March 26, 1999

JOE GAROFOLI

Co-workers angered by broken trust

Two of Ruby Hamilton's co-workers are accused of the lowest of all crimes:
stealing from the poor. Two Contra Costa County workers assigned to help
folks get off welfare are accused of stealing more than $187,000 from the
county's homeless and emergency assistance fund.

That money is supposed to help people find a place to sleep for a few nights
or who have serious financial problems. It is for people who have nothing.

And that's why Ruby is upset, as are many of her 200 co-workers at Social
Services' office in Richmond. Some burst into tears when they heard the
news, and others have been plagued by nightmares. Sixty showed up to express
their feelings to an employee assistance counselor recently. They're
shocked, angry and disappointed that their co-workers might have violated
the sacred trust they hold with their clients. Their clients are the people
who pour out the intimate details of their lives in the hope of finding a
job.

Their clients are the people who have nothing.

Ruby's co-workers feel violated because their workplace has been poisoned by
the alleged actions of people who should know better. By people who know how
sacred that trust is. Ruby said there has been a different air in her office
since the news broke. One of the after-effects has been that she and others
are doubting themselves.

"We've never really had to question one another before," Ruby said. "Nothing
would cross your mind to think someone would be dishonest.

"But now, I feel like my integrity is questioned. Not just by the public,
but just by everyone. You just don't feel comfortable anymore. Did I dot all
the i's and cross all the t's? Is someone back there looking at my back?"

In Ruby's business, trust is everything.

A new era
You have to be a rare breed to work with folks on welfare, especially in
these days of reform when the system is being turned upside down. Instead of
doling out checks, "employment specialists" such as Ruby now have to find
jobs for their "clients." It is a job that requires a bottomless heart to
reach out to the poorest among us, and a cast-iron stomach to navigate the
dizzying labyrinth of bureaucracy. Folks such as Ruby don't have time to
worry that the person sitting next to them is stealing from poor folks; it's
unthinkable.

"A bunch of us were trying to figure out how they could have done it," says
Patricia Lewis, who works in the same office as Ruby and the two accused
workers. (One has pleaded not guilty and the other is scheduled to be
arraigned Monday.) "Who has the time or the energy to do it?"

There is no way to shake out the bad apples. Sure, employment specialists go
through several interviews, a background check and are fingerprinted before
they're hired. But there's no way to tell who will violate the sacred trust.

The two accused workers received $42,000 salaries, but people don't get into
this work for cash. The rewards of Ruby's job are small, but heartfelt. She
has to smile when clients curse and threaten her if they can't find work or
when the bureaucracy fails them. A few clients have commented about the
crime, she said, one wondering whether his delayed check had been stolen.

When Ruby feels down, she looks at the hand-made cards that line her desk.
They're from clients who appreciated her work. Patricia becomes teary while
recalling the client who made her a small pouch filled with potpourri last
week -- just to say thanks. Thanks for keeping the trust. Thanks for caring
about the people who have nothing.

Apologizing
Ruby and Patricia can't talk about how their department is revising its
operations. One of the accused told investigators that the social service
system "was very loose and the opportunity was so tempting" to steal.
Investigators say one of the accused was directly funneling cash from the
homeless fund into her landlord's bank account to pay rent. In her home,
investigators found tickets for a Carnival Cruise to Mexico that was
supposed to leave yesterday.

One of the accused wrote three letters of apology to her supervisors. One
read: "I know that you trusted me wholeheartedly and that is what is making
my heart hurt the most." She asked her supervisors to pass on her apologies
to her co-workers. It's a little late for that now. A sacred trust has
already been damaged.

 1999 Contra Costa Times