Wednesday, February 01, 2006
this is who protects our children
Anyone who's been watching the news lately has heard about the recent child deaths in NYC in open CPS investigations (for example, Nixzmary Brown, pictured here). In the aftermath, as supervisors tried to cover their asses, dirty deeds such as altered file records were uncovered. And ACS, as it is called in NYC, has opened an internal investigation into procedures. We already know that the frontline workers will take the fall for a system badly in need of repair.
It doesn't take a freakin' rocket scientist to see what is happening. It's been in the news before. The job of a CPS investigator is overwhelmingly stressful -- they hold children's lives in their hands. And continual federal and state budget cuts over the years have eroded the protection system to the point that these investigators hold far, far too many children's lives in their hands. Current caseloads are in the hundreds, beyond the capacity of any human being, if the goal is to keep children safe. Consequently, turnover is extremely high in this field. In fact, it's so high that many protective services systems are looking beyond the typical social work, psych, and education graduates for recruiting purposes. When I was a volunteer guardian ad litem for the juvenile court (different from attorney guardians ad litem in family court), I had to work with a protective services worker who held a BS in English, and no training in the field whatsoever.
Recently, in the wake of the ACS investigation, a recruitment notice for ACS was forwarded to doctoral students in my program. They are again seeking frontline caseworkers, and for the honor of carrying an impossible caseload of children in need of protection, they are offering a starting salary of $36,161 annually, with an 18 month probationary period -- at which point the salary increases to a whopping $41,877. For holding children's lives in their hands. In NYC. It would be challenging for anyone to even pay rent with that starting salary in NYC.
I did an internship with a specialized child sexual abuse unit in Spokane when I was in grad school. This unit combined protective services with mental health counselors and hospital staff for a unique three-pronged approach to addressing abuse. It was a well run unit, and a national model of how to do it 'best.' My staff supervisor, after a training-in period of accompanying her on home visits and initial investigations, gave me a caseload of five families to provide services to in my 3/4 time internship. And I can tell you, weekly visits and services to these five families kept me busy. My supervisor was one of the best trained workers, possessing integrity not often found in the world today. To this day, I admire her tremendously. Her caseload, however, like most workers, was the caseload from hell. The 'loud' cases got priority, the ones that calmed down were moved to the 'back burner' unless/until something flared up again.
After I had left the internship and moved on, I read in the paper that one of the children in one of the families I had been responsible for had died. She and her younger sister were swimming in the local lake, unsupervised, and the younger one became hopelessly entangled in the 'sea'weed. The older sister, while successful in freeing her sibling, became entangled herself and drowned. It took the authorities two weeks to find the kids' mother to tell her she'd lost a daughter. She'd had no idea her daughter was gone. The dad lived clear across the state and never saw the kids even once in the time I'd been their 'caseworker.' I can't imagine how I would have handled it if this child had died 'on my watch' so to speak. The guilt would be unimaginable. The child did die on the watch of my former supervisor, and I can't help but wonder how she dealt with that knowledge. And she was clearly one of the best in the field.
One of the biggest concerns I had while working in the social services field was the discrepancy between services provided to foster parents versus family of origin parents. I spent some time as a volunteer driving kids in foster care to various appointments around town. Foster parents were provided with transportation to get the kids to court appointed services such as doctor appointments and therapy sessions if they chose to use them. And foster parents were provided with funds for 'respite care,' meaning they could, if things became difficult, seek occasional care elsewhere for the child and have time to themselves. I'm not suggesting that foster parents are living the good life on the system -- I happen to admire any family who would choose to take in a child who is not their own. But I often thought that if the family of origin could have been provided with some of these services, the situation might not have escalated to the point that the children would need to be placed in foster care. Not that it would work in all cases...there are certainly extreme cases, such as Nixzmary Brown, in which the adults simply shouldn't be allowed to have kids in the home. But in thousands of the less sensational cases, things like respite care and transportation to counseling sessions can have a huge impact on a family's ability to cope with a stressful situation.
And yet our president says that the state of the union is great. Tell that to the kids. Perhaps if he weren't so firm in extending those tax cuts for the rich, maybe there'd be some money to put into this, and other systems that are failing our children. Just some meandering thoughts that were sparked by that job recruitment notice. My opinions, nothing more. And no, I'm not applying for a position with them anytime soon.