Soapbox, high horse, whatever you call it, here I am.

11 04 2011

I’ve hesitated to write about the Marchella Pierce case, in which two ACS workers are being charged with criminally negligent homicide. I’m not a lawyer. I’m not well-versed enough in the law to decide what constitutes manslaughter vs. criminally negligent homicide vs. murder, first or second degree whatever. No matter how much Law & Order I’ve watched.

But I am a social worker. So there are some things I can comment on.

This was the case of a medically fragile four year old, who weighed fifteen pounds at the time of her death. (I weighed fifteen pounds at about four months.  True, my family produces fatty hearty babies, but still. At four years old, that’s bad.) ACS was involved with the family due to the mother’s drug history and the child’s medical condition. Mom called the police after her daughter had been unresponsive for about an hour. The child had marks that indicated she had been tied to the bed and beaten. She died in September of 2010.

All around, a tragedy. Of course. And, of course, people are looking for someone to blame.

What’s unique here is not that the child protective agency is being blamed. That happens whenever a child dies from abuse or neglect. What’s unique is that they are being held criminally responsible.

In six months, from March through August, when the ACS caseworker was meant to be conducting biweekly visits with the family, he entered two contacts in the city database. One was a phone call in March. The other was an (unsuccessful) attempted home visit in June.

After the child’s death, he and his supervisor miraculously recalled five other contacts he had with the family, and entered those. What we ethical fucking human beings social workers call, “falsification of records.”

I decided to write about this topic after reading many other people’s reactions. One concern that’s been brought up many times is that fear of criminal prosecution will keep people out of the profession.

Guess what? I’m ok with that. This job is serious. I am not being dramatic when I say that child protective workers have children’s lives in their hands. This man did not take his responsibilities seriously. This child was at risk of death. This isn’t a case of hindsight being 20/20. This isn’t a situation in which no one called the abuse in because they didn’t want to get involved. This was a malnourished child who had visible bruises and rope marks on her body, who had a team of people assigned to protect her.

They failed.

Some people say that the system failed. I’m not often trying to defend our child welfare system. It’s deeply flawed. But this is not an example of that. This is an example of deeply flawed workers.

Six months. Without seeing this child. An eighth of her life.

We hear about these workers being overwhelmed. They’re claiming that they were so overwhelmed and busy that they forgot to enter all of the contacts with the family, but they did, in fact, see them.

Sorry, but that’s bullshit.

The opinion piece I linked to above talks about the need to appreciate the improvements that ACS has made, especially since the death of Nixzmary Brown. Caseloads are smaller, they’re trying to recruit better workers (they make more money than I do, with less education), and more referrals are being made to quality preventive programs.

They’ve got a long way to go, but these points are true. New York City child protective workers have an average caseload of ten. People in other parts of the country would kill for that. I would kill for that. Yes, it’s a difficult, thankless job, often dangerous, with crazy hours. But it’s doable. I have met a lot of CPS workers that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but I’ve also met some wonderful ones. CPS workers who are dedicated, knowledgeable, and put children first. The idea that this worker only had time to enter his contacts after the death of this child is ludicrous.

Sometimes people fall behind. There is a chain of command, supervisors on top of supervisors, for this very reason. Someone is looking over your shoulder, insuring that things are getting done as they’re supposed to.

Meaning that the supervisor in this scenario failed miserably as well.

Falsification of records happens. It should be unheard of, but it’s not. I’ve seen it. I’ve reported it. And I’ve seen that worker kept on their job. It’s inexcusable. It’s the one thing (well, one of very few things) my supervisor tells us she will absolutely not defend.

Because this is what it can lead to.

What can we learn from this?

  1. We need to take our jobs seriously. Social workers, child protective workers, investigators, preventive workers…we can be the last hope for a child in this type of home.
  2. We can’t defend others just because they share our profession. Our first instinct is so often to stand up for our fellow workers. But in cases of ethical violations, especially when they lead to tragedy, we owe it to the profession not to do this.
  3. Supervisors cannot become so overwhelmed or detached that they ignore their responsibility. Even if their direct contact with clients is limited.
  4. DON’T FALSIFY YOUR RECORDS. It will never be worth it. Some people are told to do this by their supervisors. Some people feel pressure to do this in order to make their numbers. But it’s inexcusable. There aren’t a lot of things I will say that about, but this is one.

So I don’t see this case as an indictment of ACS, or the social work profession. I see it as an indictment of two people who failed to do their jobs, which contributed to the death of a child. A child who was clearly at risk, and should have been protected.

A child who would probably be alive today, if those smaller caseloads had been taken advantage of and those stricter requirements followed.

It’s something we all need to keep in mind.

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10 responses

11 04 2011
mhowardkarp

Great, thoughtful post.

My daughter’s social worker laid eyes on her probably 3 times in 18 months. Fortunately, she was in a great placement and had excellent care. But no thanks to the worker. I want to kick something just thinking about it.

It IS a systemic problem in that it’s not that unusual of a story. But you’re right – there are systems in place to keep this from happening, and there’s no reason why the first AND second lines of defense should have completely failed Marchella. Sickening.

11 04 2011
socialjerk

Thank you.

That so upsetting to hear about your daughter. It makes me so angry to hear of how often that happens. It’s just lucky that there aren’t more tragedies, when workers aren’t following up as they should.

You are definitely right that this is a widespread problem. I just don’t think unrealistic expectations or lack of resources contributed here. The reasonable guidelines that these workers were supposed to follow would most likely have saved this girl’s life.

11 04 2011
SW24/7

Not sure if you saw my take on this issue – http://nblo.gs/gk0uL – but glad to know we agree! 🙂

11 04 2011
socialjerk

I hadn’t seen this, but we definitely agree! High caseloads (which were not a factor here) burnout, lack of training, whatever, are definitely not an excuse. People should be scared to do this job–not so much that no one would ever do it, but people considering it need to understand how serious it is. People have asked if this case scared me about being held liable for these kind of things. Honestly, it doesn’t. Because I’m not perfect, but I do my job.

11 04 2011
erika

I love what you’re saying here and I agree 100%. I don’t want to seem overly sympathetic to these caseworkers who totally neglected this case – but I often wonder if some of this is a result of post-trauma (for the caseworker on the front lines). If a caseworker is overwhelmed, it makes sense (unfortunately) that the person might avoid cases for emotional reasons (and the worse the case, the more avoidance). Given that – I really feel like the frontline cps workers need help managing their vicarious trauma reactions.
I called and requested my caseworker to come once a month – on the calendar – so that my girls wouldn’t feel dropped off and forgotten. It took about 6 months for it not to feel like I was annoying the worker.

11 04 2011
socialjerk

I agree that vicarious traumatization is important to be aware of in this field. Especially considering that a lot of those front line workers don’t have a social work education, where they might be taught to look out for that.

That being said, it doesn’t really play into my feelings about this case. From my experience with child protective workers, I don’t get the feeling that this is what was going on. I’ve seen workers who go for months without seeing a family because they just forget, or don’t think that it’s particularly important.

It drives me crazy to hear parents saying they had to request that their children be visited! There’s so many guidelines for visits, and so much documentation involved, this shouldn’t be happening.

11 04 2011
Jaysey

I know how completely overwhelmed our caseworkers are here. Sadly, I also know some of these caseworkers are only about 1 step away from tragedy like this. And it scares me every day. But that’s exactly why I volunteer as a Guardian ad Litem. I have at least twice as many contacts a month as the caseworkers assigned to my cases. If they miss something, I can catch it… and hopefully avoid such tragedy.

12 04 2011
socialjerk

Guardian ad Litem volunteers are SO important. That’s a great thing for you to take the time to do. It’s unfortunate that we need to rely on volunteers to ensure that these kids get the attention that they need, but I’m glad that people like you make themselves available.

It drives me crazy that changes have been made in NYC, following similar tragedies, and yet this is still happening. The fact that it was so preventable is what’s really frustrating.

12 04 2011
CT

This is just sad. It’s disheartening to think any parent could do something like that to their child (or any person to another). Reading this actually made me think perhaps I should think of going back to school for social work, so I could help (this has been suggested by a retiring social work professor colleague of mine). Although, it’s difficult to anticipate whether I could really deal with these issues, one after another, day after day. Social workers (the honest, devoted ones) deserve so much credit, which they’ll probably never get.

13 04 2011
socialjerk

Social work makes a fine second career (I’ve heard.) It’s not easy to deal with what you see on a daily basis, but I think that with a decent support system and a good education to prepare you for it, it can be managed.

Thanks for commenting!

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