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.


Cassandra said...

What you say is so true. But there is oh so much more involved. The case with my family is something that has given my pause to ponder issues that haven't even been raised by such newsworthy events.

I had an opportunity to read the investigative reports prepared by ACS, as well as their field material, after my spouse made allegations against me. My spouse lived in one county. I lived in another. Two different agencies did the investigations, the first time.

The one that investigated me declared the report unfounded, and closed the case. The one that investigated my wife's household declared the allegations against me to be indicated--or true--and filed a report to the court to that effect. In addition, they also told the agency that investigated me to screw off. They made notes indicating that there were signs of coaching of the children, but drew no conclusions from that. They made notes indicating that my child was afraid of my spouse, but ignored it and drew no conclusions from it.

And, in the end, in court, the Judge ignored their findings and declared it all unfounded. However, only seeing the reports, and not the preparatory investigative materials--several hundred pages of them, he missed an opportunity to pick up on the coaching or the fear of my spouse. ACS saw what they wanted to see.

They made a judgement call and stood by it. I know that they made the wrong one, just as we all know of the high profile mistakes of the past few weeks. Yet, and I'm not defending them, but it happens when you have to make the tough dcisions--mistakes happen.

I was more bitter about what happened in my life when I knew less. Knowing more, I feel that they were even less justified because I can see what I KNOW are the mistakes. Yet, I am often called on to make decisions and I do make mistakes; I hire the wrong person; I trust the wrong friend; I marry the wrong person; I do the right thing and get screwed for it.

It happens! You're always a winner when you make the right call, and you're always a loser when you make a mistake. I remember how easy it is to get things wrong--even with working your ass off. Sometimes we just see it the way we want to.

And that doesn't mean that I condone it. After all, I have a story of my own....

Cala Lily said...

I was a lost child. An invisible lost child. A lost child with money. I used to dream of being rescued. Then I simply dreamed of not being. Not of not being something. I dreamed of not being anything. Of disappearing like smoke in the wind.

Every lost child deserves to be rescued. By a social worker, by a teacher, by someone who cares. And none of that will ever happen until we value our social workers and our teachers to pay them a decent wage.

And every lost and strugglying parent, struggling to keep their child from getting lost deserves help from us all. The same help offered to foster families.

The system is maddening. A full-tilt run from actual responsibility and actual support for children and all those who care for them.

I don't have children. I no longer believe in childhood.

Dean said...

I was just appalled at the tax cut mention during the state of the Union speech. That mean really does have no idea how his policies affect average citizens.

This type of job...I don't know that I could do it. I don't think that I could step into a position where I couldn't perform my best at all times. Being stretched too thinly, these workers can try and try but won't be able to help everyone.

Kudos to those who can try to make a difference in the face of those odds.

Spring said...

cassandra, thanks so much for sharing your story.

I'm not at all surprised to hear that two ACS employees came to completely different conclusions in the investigation. The biggest challenge for workers are the cases in which there is no physical evidence, nor eye witness. Then, unfortunately, it is largely subjective. The investigator, like you said, must make a judgement call.

Those are the cases I feared the most in my internship. Because you could only hope you'd made the right decision. It is true that the more experienced the worker is, the more sound their judgement is (well...generally speaking anyway...there are idiots out there everywhere, after all), but in the quick cycling in and out of workers, few ever reach that higher level of expertise.

And I agree, the more you know about how bad the system is, the more bitter -- and disillusioned -- one becomes.

Spring said...

cala lily, thank you so much for your comments. I'm so very sorry the system failed you as well.

It's so clear the little value that our society places on our children. With one hand we label them the future of our country, but with the other we take away from them until there's nothing left to take away.

Anyone with a job that serves children -- child care, teaching, protective services -- is not paid according the the value we like to say we place on our children. It sends a message to the world, and to our children -- a message I don't like.

Spring said...

dean, that's it exactly. He has no idea, or probably more likely, doesn't care, how his policies affect children. After all, the children didn't elect him. *gag*

I too admire the tough work these people do for children. I wish we could be sure they had adequate training, salaries, and emotional support for doing the hardest job out there -- trying to save our children in a broken system.