Social Worker Discovers Work Really Does Define Her


Reflecting on more than 30 years protecting sexually abused children, Cathy McLennan – who was recently compared to a combination of Mother Theresa and CSI investigator by a Union-Tribune columnist – said, “someone has to do it and I am pretty good at it.”

What the soon-to-be retired Palomar Health social worker is good at is helping children under the age of 14 tell their incredibly painful stories of sexual abuse, often at the hands of family and friends. The work can be so disturbing that McLennan’s mentor and predecessor left the profession after struggling to separate work from home. 

“I don’t think most of us leave it at work. My husband will say he is traumatized by it at times,” McLennan said.

She has been so passionate about the job she says even her off time has been related to work - taking vacation to train other forensic interviewers, watching CSI, reading books about the psychology of abuse.

“I came to this district (Palomar Health) looking for a job…the job turned out to be more…it became more about who I am as opposed to what I do,” McLennan said.

McLennan’s journey of self-discovery in the North County began when her family moved to Escondido at the age of 10. She graduated from Orange Glen High School and attended San Diego State University, earning a Master’s degree in Social Work. She got married, had two kids and took up residence in Valley Center. She has four grandchildren and lives with her husband of 43 years, who recently retired from a career in heating and air conditioning. If it wasn’t for her desire to spend more time with family she said she would work forever. McLennan says the hardest part of retiring will be “not seeing the kids.”

The kids are what got McLennan interested in her career. After starting as a medical social worker at Palomar Medical Center Downtown Escondido (it was called a hospital back then), she transitioned into the Child Abuse Program in 1987 because it dealt with children. 

As a forensic interviewer in the Child Abuse Program, McLennan collects non-physical evidence used by prosecutors in court to convict sexual perpetrators. McLennan also serves as an expert court witness testifying on behalf of the sex assault victim and educating jurors on why the majority of sex assault victims wait months or even years before disclosing abuse.

“I have truly loved this job. Having a job that has meaning to people…it was lucky I guess. I lucked into this job. I didn’t know it existed,” McLennan said.

Luck goes both ways in this case. Palomar Health and especially the children and residents of North County have been lucky to have a true champion of children for the past 33 years. Last week McLennan was given a lifetime achievement award by the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office.

She is also a champion of Palomar Health. While recognizing some hard financial times, she said, “I’m proud Palomar Health has done this for all these years. It’s rare for a community hospital to provide this as a community service.”

McLennan says she will use retirement to get back into her other passions: tennis, traveling, reading. She also plans to volunteer -- with children, of course.

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