Like many families served by the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, Margie Roman — a longtime employee of the child welfare agency — stepped up to help raise two granddaughters when the girls needed a stable home.
A public service worker who was both fiercely independent and relentlessly thoughtful, she spared no expense or effort to make sure the children in her care had everything they needed at home or in school. But in yet more human tragedy amid the half-million U.S. deaths caused by the coronavirus, she is now being mourned by stunned friends and family. Roman, 63, died last month after contracting COVID-19.
“She had the loudest laugh ever — it was like a scream,” said her granddaughter Jessica Roman, who moved into her grandmother’s house at age 5. “It just made you keep laughing at whatever she was saying.”
As cases surged in Los Angeles County in January, outbreaks struck several of the 20 Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) offices. And last month, the agency recorded its first two known deaths from COVID-19, according to officials: Roman, a 40-year county employee, and Bernadette Echols, a 32-year veteran of the department who worked on the child protection hotline. Roman and Echols died just three days apart.
“The entire DCFS family grieves the loss of our dedicated colleagues and we extend our heartfelt condolences to their families,” a department spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Imprint.
Roman, who was able to work from home during the pandemic, contracted the deadly virus from a family member, her granddaughter said. She died on Jan. 25, just weeks before she was set to retire.
Jessica Roman, now 22, said the woman she called mom will be remembered for her boundless energy and optimism and her generous spirit.
“She was a caretaker of the whole family,” she said.
David Green, a leader of the union that represents Los Angeles County social workers, said news of Roman’s death has brought home the pandemic for many department employees, leaving her peers with “a combination of shock and disbelief.”
“I just talked to her around the holiday time,” Green said, “and she was talking about how excited she was about retirement and that she was looking forward to traveling.”
As the household’s provider, Roman commuted more than a hour each way from her Ontario home to her jobs with Los Angeles County — first with the Department of Mental Health and over the past 10 years, as an internal affairs investigator with the Department of Children and Family Services. It was a point of pride for a woman who relatives said didn’t have a college education.
Roman grew up in Baldwin Park as one of 12 siblings, her granddaughter said. As young as age 10, she cooked and cleaned for her brothers and sisters when her parents were away working.
When Jessica Roman wanted a vintage look in high school, her grandmother sewed her a 1950s-style pin-up dress. Even in recent years, she would fashion a new pair of pants for Jessica whenever she came across a fabric she thought she would like.
In addition to stitching together outfits and Halloween costumes for the family, her grandmother sewed her own curtains and changed the oil in her car. She preached self-sufficiency to her granddaughters — never rely on a man, she would often say, when you can just do it yourself.
In an online remembrance, co-worker Elizabeth Vazquez remembered Roman’s “shared stories,” “everyday advice” and outgoing disposition.
“I so admired her drive, motivation and love for life,” she wrote.
Just days after Roman died, on Jan. 28, clerical worker Echols passed away due to complications from COVID-19, at age 64. Echols had worked her way up to senior clerk on the child protection hotline, the high-stakes command post where operators are responsible for responding to serious reports of abuse and neglect.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis adjourned a board meeting on Feb. 9 with a dedication to Echols.
“Her support and collaboration to her peers along with her pleasant demeanor gained her recognition, respect and much appreciation during her tenure in the department,” Solis said. “Her life’s work is truly commendable as her legacy lives on in the programs and services that she contributed to.”
Solis said Echols is survived by her daughter, Lisa, and sister, Sandra.
More than 20,000 people have died from the coronavirus in Los Angeles County. In early January, the seven-day average of infections peaked at more than 15,000 daily cases.
Since then, infections have dropped by about 90% but the toll remains high. On Tuesday alone, there were 2,091 new cases and 157 deaths from COVID-19.
County Children and Family Services offices have been hit hard over the past two months. The agency’s Metro North office — located in downtown Los Angeles — had 73 cases in January, according to the public health department. Other offices in South Los Angeles, Carson and Santa Fe Springs have each recorded more than 25 cases in recent weeks.
All told, more than 10% of the department’s 9,600 staff members have contracted the coronavirus, Director Bobby Cagle announced at a county meeting earlier this month.
“This is impacting all of us in a very dire way,” Cagle said.
To protect employees, Cagle’s department has urged many employees to work from home, limited access to offices and rotated schedules. For those employees who come to work, the department has restricted access to break rooms and other communal areas.
But thousands of social workers must conduct in-person investigations and home visits with children and families in the county’s vast child welfare system, exposing them to the risk of infection in the community. Starting next month, some of the department’s workers who investigate abuse and neglect in the community will be eligible for a limited number of vaccines, according to an announcement from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health on Wednesday.
But even with the vaccine on the horizon and some personal protective equipment, union leader Green said many Los Angeles social workers are living in a climate of fear.“Despite having PPE and all the precautions, you always have this thought at the back of your mind: I hope I’m not bringing home this deadly disease back home to my family tonight,” he said.
This article has been updated with information about the county’s vaccine eligibility for Department of Children and Family Services emergency response social workers.