Reporters like to believe they write about "truth." Sometimes it's impossible because absolute truth doesn't exist very often.

It's safe to say with certainty that if you put your bare hand into a raging fire you'll be burned. It's much more difficult to state categorically whether a system or program is good or bad.I've been reminded of that since I started putting together a series of articles on the child-protective system in Utah.

Questions about child-protection efforts have been around as long as there have been people who threatened child safety. But lately those questions have surfaced often on television and in newspapers.

I wanted to find absolute truth. I'd have loved to be able to write, without hesitation, that the "system" is flawed. Or even better, that it is perfect and all children who come in contact with it will live happily ever after. I could do neither. What I found was an odd conglomeration of people whose lives have come together for better or worse.

I met social workers I trusted and respected completely. But that doesn't mean I'd be happy if I found them in my living room asking questions.

I met a few who seemed less skilled but who showed "great potential" (a phrase I hate when someone uses it to describe me, and I'm sure they feel the same). And I met a couple of social workers who seemed convinced they knew everything and their word would be the law.

It was like walking into a newsroom or a faculty room or a garage - any place that has more than one employee. Face it, some are just better than others, and that is, unfortunately, true in child protection, where there really is no room for mistakes.

The feedback I received on the series was just as contradictory. Callers who had a complaint about the system said I was too easy on it. Others said I was much too harsh.

But the thing that said the most about the plight of families in Utah was the number of personal stories I heard last week.

One caller told me about her granddaughter, who she said is left alone for long periods. Her parents drink, the grandmother said, and she worries about the child. But calls to Human Services have not sparked significant change. "They seem indifferent."

Another caller told me that Human Service staffers were overzealous. When her toddler fell and bumped his head, she took him to the emergency room to make sure the child was OK. A full protective-service investigation later, she said she'd learned one thing. She'll think twice before she takes a child to the emergency room again.

She was cleared of all suspicion eventually, she said, but the experience was traumatic. At the same time, as someone who loves children, she was glad that the workers took possible child abuse seriously. "I wouldn't want them to ignore abuse. But this has been awful."

She summarized the dilemma quite well. "I knew I hadn't abused him, so I couldn't believe anyone would suspect me. On the other hand, I guess they can only go by appearances and look into it."

From several calls I got the impression that whether an investigation was appropriate depends on who was being investigated. If someone's investigating me, it's stupid. But I want the investigation into anyone else's life to be thorough. For the sake of the child.

The most disturbing thing I found in this minefield - and it is a minefield because real lives are affected, perhaps forever - was the battle lines that seem to have been drawn.

I found critics who could find nothing good to say about the system. I also found workers within the system who were defensive or at least reluctant to admit that there might be ways to improve child protection in Utah.

On the positive side, I also found people both within the system and without who care more than anything about the lives of children. They could point to weaknesses and mistakes, but they are committed to doing the best they can in a system that hinges on judgment calls and best guesses.

These people welcomed investigation, dialogue, stories about strengths and weaknesses, because they thought all of these things would ultimately improve child protection.

These are the people who will determine the future of child protection in Utah, if they're willing to get involved. If somewhere in the gray area between "everything's perfect" and "nothing works" they can meet to exchange ideas, the future will be brighter for the thousands of children who are abused and neglected every year.