NEW YORK (AP) - When child welfare worker Kelly Mares investigates an abuse case, she doesn't know what's going to greet her on the other side of the door. A ferocious dog. Or a gun. Or a meth lab, or angry parents who lash out violently.
She takes those risks willingly, she says, because she believes in protecting the city's most vulnerable. But she's not willing to risk going to jail. After two of her co-workers were charged with criminally negligent homicide in the death of a 4-year-old Brooklyn girl under their care, she's rethinking her career.
"I do not want to go to work every day afraid that I'm going to be arrested for doing my job, and right now that's how everybody feels and it's really scary," she said, her voice cracking.
Workers at child welfare agencies around the country tell similar stories of taxing, emotional and frustrating jobs that are low in pay and high in stress because of hostile families, tight budgets and overburdened court systems. Workers juggle several cases, make as little as $28,000 a year and usually burn out after a couple of years.
In Brooklyn, an investigator and supervisor for the New York City Administration for Children's Services are arguing they were too busy to record their work in the case of Marchella Pierce, who died after being beaten, drugged and starved to 18 pounds, about half of what a child her age should weigh. If and when they go to trial, a central issue will be whether city workers who fall down on the job should be held criminally responsible - and the outcome could set a precedent for how failures are handled in the future.
Critics liken the practice to arresting a police officer for not getting to the scene of a crime fast enough.
"It's impossible to see into the future about these cases," child welfare expert Andrew White said, referring to Marchella's death.
"It's a lot to take the responsibility for something you're only seeing in hindsight . when you're talking about homicide charges," said White of The New School for Management and Urban Policy which publishes the journal Child Welfare Watch.
Prosecutors insist, though, that child welfare workers who are dangerously negligent in their jobs should be held criminally responsible.
Case workers in Philadelphia who skipped home visits to a 14-year-old disabled girl and contractors who invented phony paperwork after she starved to death in 2006 are serving long prison terms for defrauding the city; her mother is serving 20 to 40 years for third-degree murder.
Florida's system recently came under fire after a child protective investigator failed to call law enforcement during a four-day search for 10-year-old fraternal twins allegedly locked in a bathroom for days. Instead, officials say, she filled out a safety questionnaire indicating the children were not in danger. The girl's body was later found in her father's pickup truck.
In Brooklyn, Marchella Pierce's mother, Carlotta Brett-Pierce, has been charged with murder in her September death; her grandmother has been charged with manslaughter. They have pleaded not guilty.
At the crux of the charges against investigator Damon Adams and his supervisor, Chereece Bell, are whether visits were made to the troubled home. Records and conversations between Bell and Adams were not entered into the computer system until after she died, and prosecutors charge that they were falsified.
The Administration for Children's Services said in an internal report that it appeared no one visited the home in the months before the girl died.
Bell and Adams say some visits took place but weren't recorded because they were so busy. They resigned in October.
"I was so conditioned. ... Every day it was something else coming up that prevented you from doing another. It was so regular to me that it was impossible to get it all done," Bell said.
She said she was undertrained and never got the staff she needed to manage a Brooklyn-based unit that had a high rate of abuse and neglect cases. Adams' attorney said he had dozens of court cases, in addition to open child welfare investigations that took up hours of his day.
But White said that regardless of the hours, good workers get much of their work done, and if they really made the visits, there should be some kind of paperwork to back it up.
New York's child welfare commissioner, John Mattingly, recently announced system changes after Marchella's death and said in a statement that the arrests were troubling and could discourage excellent job applicants.
Child welfare experts say Mattingly's fear is a real possibility, given how difficult the jobs are.
"We're asking people to go into very difficult neighborhoods, work with families that may not have them there, and do it with poise and calm, in highly charged environments in order to protect children," said Mary McCarthy, a child welfare expert at the State University of New York in Albany. "And then make decisions about the future welfare of that child."
In the past decade, the New York City agency's budget has gone from about $2.1 billion in fiscal year 2000 to about $2.7 billion now. Cases have steadily increased since the death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown - who was bound to a chair, starved, forced to use a litter box and then beaten to death - shook the city and led to changes in the child welfare system.
The Child Welfare League of America recommends no more than 12 active investigations per worker a month at one time, and no more than 14 combined investigations and court cases at one time.
Child welfare workers in New York on average juggle nine investigations at any given time, plus dozens of other open cases. In Illinois, it's 12. In South Florida, under scrutiny after the case involving the twins, it is nearly 18.
Workers make $28,000 and up. In New York, investigators are paid between $42,000 and $72,000. In Miami, it's $34,000.
Right now, Mares has 22 cases to monitor, including 10 open investigations. She starts early, ends late. She spends as much as five hours at a home and spends days in court on other cases. She needs to obtain medical and school records; examine children physically; and interview parents, teachers, neighbors and friends about potential abuse.
She has to prioritize, and that often means leaving paperwork until the end.
"Look, if this precedent is going to be set, then you might as well arrest me right now, because my notes are late," Mares said. "Does it mean I didn't make those visits? No. Does it mean I don't take good, clear notes? No. Does it mean I didn't do those things I said I did? No."
The stress causes most investigators to burn out quickly, child welfare experts say. In Florida, state agency Secretary David Wilkins said, nearly 56 percent of investigators have been on the job less than two years.
"I have seen, in over eight years with the Department, several massive exoduses of workers who feel they have come to the end of their line," Florida child welfare worker Leaford McCleary wrote in an internal email to other workers obtained by The Associated Press.
"It is common knowledge that we often neglect our obligations to ourselves and our families in order to meet the demands of this job," she wrote. "And our secret prayer at the end of each day is that nothing goes wrong with a child on our caseload."
The investigator who failed to call law enforcement during the search for the twins is no longer with the agency. Another employee was fired and two others were reprimanded. No criminal charges have been filed.
For New York's Mares, who left a successful career in theater to do the job, she's not sure what her next move will be. She has been working two years - the mile post for most to get out.
"I wanted to help children, and I wanted to make a difference and I like getting to the heart of things; that's why I chose this position," she said. "I didn't sign up for the two-year turnaround. I signed up to make this my career, and to be honest, all of this is in question now."
Associated Press writer Kelli Kennedy in Miami contributed to this report.