A conversation I had last week with the director of the Office of Family Support, Cindy Haag, started me thinking about the many lives that are touched and to some extent shaped by the people and policies of the Department of Human Services.

For the last two weeks, I have been covering budget hearings, where different divisions have presented their needs to an appropriations subcommittee.Division directors present funding needs, then members of the audience "testify" about the programs.

There are literally hundreds of programs, serving the poor, those who are disabled, people with mental retardation or mental illness, substance abusers, victims of child abuse and domestic violence, senior citizens and troubled youths.

All of the programs are funded through Human Services. Some of these populations also receive help through the Department of Health, relying on the state and federal government for health care.

Each of these programs has willing spokesmen - people willing to stand up and talk about what the programs have done to improve their lives. Sometimes they speak of gaps in programs, like waiting lists for Meals on Wheels or other community services.

Maybe willing isn't the right word. As I've listened to the testimony, I've had new thoughts on the subject. I think many of the people speak out of fear.

They're not afraid of the system or the bureaucracy or any number of other phrases that people associate with government programs. They are afraid of what would happen in their lives if the programs didn't exist. So they speak out to protect themselves and the people they care about who are also dependent on help for survival.

Each time someone speaks, you can assume that thousands are silent but needy nonetheless.

The Division of Services to the Handicapped, for example, served 3,052 people in 1989. For all those served, there are others waiting. According to the fiscal analyst's budget report, 336 wait for day services, 447 for residential, 104 for family support and 29 for attendant care.

The Office of Social Services is responsible for Child Welfare, including investigation of child neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse.

Last year, there were 4,670 substantiated cases of neglect, 1,724 physical abuse and 1,638 child abuse. Child protective workers also had to investigate thousands of unsubstantiated cases.

Caseloads are eating the office alive, and some services will be eliminated. Staff will no longer investigate truancy or educational neglect unless there are also allegations of abuse or abandonment. Non-supervision referrals for children over 10 will be ignored.

Any services provided to children who are suicidal or mentally ill will be handled by mental health authorities unless there's abuse or abandonment. The Office of Social Services just can't do it anymore, according to Ron Stromberg, who heads the office.

In a given month, Utah averages 861 open cases in adult protective services.

In November, 15,982 families - 46,328 individuals - received Aid to Families With Dependent Children. Of those, 69 percent were children.

General Assistance provides grants to individuals who are unemployed and disabled. In November, 2,229 people were served.

I could go on with this list. But I think the point is pretty clear. Utah's Human Services programs serve thousands of people. Most of these people are so disadvantaged they wouldn't survive without the limited help offered. And it is limited. Welfare grants, for instance, fall far short of poverty guidelines.

I've written about all of these things. But in most of the stories, something was missing. In trying to find ways to humanize stories - to show the people the programs help instead of just the programs - I sometimes miss a very human side of the story.

That human side is the staff that keeps the programs moving. Sometimes the movement is slower than we'd like, sometimes even sluggish, but they are moving.

Human Services caseworkers can empathize with the little boy who stuck his finger in the dike to stop the flood. They've been there. Increasingly, that's a description of Human Services, where the job means battling the tide of human lives, government regulations and so much paperwork it threatens to drown them. Caseloads grow in gigantic leaps; staff increases come in much smaller increments. Turnover is amazing.

It's like a boat that keeps springing leaks; but these men and women are in bail mode, and they're not about to let it sink.

Tomorrow, I may be back to complaining about problems. But today seems like a good day to say thanks to the people in the Department of Human Services for helping people who can't do it alone.

Thanks for putting your finger in the dike.