About 540 social workers, educators, officers of the law and medical technicians attended the Northwest Georgia Child Abuse Conference held last week at The Colonnade.
They came to hone job skills vital in their task of protecting youngsters and to increase the knowledge that is critical in prosecuting those who cause children harm.
They came because they care about children.
Why else would those volunteers and public servants sit through lectures detailing how to investigate cases of claimed abuse, or watch PowerPoints related to prosecution of pedophiles, or learn how to determine if an infant's death is due to natural causes or to criminal action?
"Everybody is attending to try and keep current with training, so they don't wake up at 2 a.m. thinking, 'Oh my God, did I fail them?'" said Catoosa County coroner Vanita Hullender, whose office sponsored the two-day conference.
Social workers, particularly those employed by the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS), are themselves at risk of being victims of abuse. Not by blows or bullying, but by job-related stress, which is what Dr. Rick Rader described in a keynote address.
Rader, during his "Compassion Fatigue: When Caring Too Much Can Hurt" presentation, likened front line social workers to Vietnam-era combat veterans or prize fighters.
"You have daily, unrelenting trauma and little time to recover," he said. "You face the antithesis of what we expect for children, who are truly the most trusting and vulnerable, and often become 'collateral damage.'"
Radar said it is not really possible to become "case hardened" when dealing with abuse directed toward children. And just as the medical profession is beginning to identify the cumulative effect of blows sustained during a career on the gridiron or in the ring, the same is being found among those who deal with abused children.
"There are no second-generation child abuse case workers," said Rader, director of the Habilitation Center at the Orange Grove Center in Chattanooga. "It is sad to see the high turnover, and that in turn leads to increased stress for those case workers that remain or for those just entering the field; they feel that they are expendable."
Al Danna, a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, delivered a three-hour seminar concerning investigation of the sexual abuse and exploitation of children. Though it dealt with pedophiles and molesters, Danna said his program was not designed to shock or titillate.
"What I hope for is that I can motivate the professionals to kick it into the next gear, to get them to pursue these cases beyond the minimum standard," he said.
Chris Arnt, chief assistant district attorney for the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, said every report of abuse must be investigated. At every level - DFCS, law enforcement and the entire judicial system (investigators, prosecutors, judges, corrections and probation officers) - the caseload continues to grow, particularly during tough economic times.
"Caseloads are already above the national standard," Arnt said. "Not only are the number of cases up, but so are the requirements we have to meet."
And keeping up with ever-changing standards while at the same time having more cases to handle means regular training, though necessary, is difficult to arrange and often means solitary study.
"This is a sharing of information from experts," Teresa Towery, lead field program specialist for Region 1 DCFS, said of last week's conference. "No matter how long you've been doing this, you learn something new every time, every case, every conference."