I just called to say I’m a jerk (not the good kind)

10 10 2011

Not long ago, I got a call informing me that a family I am currently working with had a case called in. The single mother was accused of leaving her two youngest children, ages three and seven, home alone over night, and of using and selling drugs. I was rather surprised by this. This mother, who has her flaws, if anything erred on the side of having her kids with her too much. She had also been required to take drug tests more than once in the past, which always came up negative.

I asked if the person calling had any idea who had made these allegations. She responded, “a concerned citizen” as if it should be obvious.

Ah yes, a concerned citizen. The living embodiment of, “it takes a village.” Someone willing to put themselves on the line, get over those feelings of minding one’s own business, because the health and safety of a child is more important.

Is it bad that my first thought was, “Oh, you mean vindictive asshole?”

Two years ago, that never would have crossed my mind. I knew people used this excuse when being accused of child abuse or neglect. I had heard it when I worked in a youth center, as child protective workers would occasionally come by the speak with the children.

“Oh, I know they’re coming to talk to my child, it’s fine. My man’s ex-girlfriend called that lie in, because she doesn’t like that I have a healthy relationship.”

Really? She doesn’t like that? Strange. It was usually something along those lines.

“My mother-in-law did it, she doesn’t think I’m good enough for her son.”
“My neighbor was pissed at me because our kids got into a fight, so she made the call to get back at me.”
“I’m pretty sure it was my sister, or my cousin, they’ve always been jealous.”

Ever notice that the people who most readily accuse others of being jealous are the people you’d be least likely to actually be jealous of? What, she envies that badass Tweety bird tattoo of yours? Can’t she get her own?

I couldn’t really believe that someone would actually do that. However mad you might get at an adult, would you ever drag an innocent child into it? Would you accuse an adult of something horrible, that could stay with them the rest of their lives? All because you can’t get over a (no doubt, big time winner) guy?

But I know now for a fact that it happens.

I was all set to close a case that had ended with two children going to live with their grandmother. The mother was mentally ill and abusing drugs, but the grandma was quite stable. The kids went from missing half the school year to getting perfect attendance awards. They were traumatized from what they’d been through with their mother, but they were in counseling and thriving.

So I was shocked when I found out that a case had been called in.

I was even more shocked when I found out what the allegations were. The first was educational neglect–the children not going to school. This was very easily checked with a simple call to the schools. Those kids were in school all the time. They showed up on weekends. That was just patently ridiculous.

The second was that the children were inadequately supervised. Now, while their mother was extremely unreliable, apparently this was not a hereditary condition. These children were surrounded by aunts and uncles, god parents, and cousins. If anything they were overly supervised. There was never a moment when there was fewer than three adults in that home.

The third is what really proved to me that this was called in by someone with a bone to pick with this family. It was alleged that there was no food in the home. This family has more food in their home on a regular basis than my three roommates and I have ever had. (To be fair, I currently only have couscous and ice pops in the kitchen, but still.) The grandmother was cooking during every home visit I made. At times, she bought too many groceries, and sent me back to the office with non-perishables for our (small, pathetic) food pantry.

I asked the grandmother what was up, and she told me. Her son’s ex-girlfriend got angry at the family and called the child abuse hotline. They knew this for sure, because after she did it, she called the family to apologize.

Well, I guess the apology counts for something. Oh no wait, I’m being told that it doesn’t. At all.

It’s pretty gross (sorry, but there’s no better word) that this even needs to be considered by someone investigating a claim of child abuse or neglect. Because they don’t have enough actual cases to investigate. And because we need this extra level of confusion in those investigations. Not just interviewing a confused child and angry, frightened parents, and trying to determine if bruises are something to worry about or just the result of normal childhood running into walls (when will I grow out of that, by the way?) but a child protective worker also has to consider if this came from some jackass who does not at all have the best interests of the child in mind.

As a child, I was told not to go anywhere near the police and fire call boxes, because they would respond and be taking time away from someone who might really be in trouble. Also, if they responded to too many fake calls, they might not take them so seriously when people really needed help.

For anyone too young to remember those things that existed pre cell phone, I hate you.

I don’t know if the problem is that this lesson isn’t shared anymore, or if people don’t have much respect for child welfare, or if ACS and similar agencies are just such a part of life in certain areas that it doesn’t seem like a big deal. I suspect it’s a combination of the three. But it’s an unbelievable part of the job, that it’s important to be aware of.

Because apparently, people really are pretty terrible sometimes.

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11 responses

10 10 2011
Social overWorker

In the two days I shadowed child protection we responded to 90% hoax calls.

Yup…

12 10 2011
socialjerk

Horrifying. And people wonder why nothing gets done.

10 10 2011
SW24/7

I once read a book (can’t remember the name right now!) where the entire premise was that we should do away with “mandated reporters” because it also caused a huge upswing in non-abuse/neglect allegations coming in which took away from the ACTUAL abuse/neglect calls. Also, it discouraged some people (like doctors and teachers) from actually helping families because they felt their only duty was to “call the hotline”. While I’m not sure that doing away with it completely is the answer – I have to say that we spend a lot of manpower on a lot of nonsense.

12 10 2011
socialjerk

That’s an interesting point. Though I will say I have much more patience for someone who is a bit overzealous in reporting than I do for someone who makes something up with the intention of messing up someone else’s life. I can’t even imagine thinking that way.

10 10 2011
SocialWrkGirl (@SocialWrkGirl)

(1) SW24/7 I wanna know the name of the book!!

(2) This string of comments makes me feel so much better about the last 2 calls “I made” (I told my sup who made the final decision, what this is social work?) to NOT call in for things which were murky but would ultimately turn up not abuse/neglect/problematic for them to open a case. At first I was confused over this policy, but I really don’t want to waste peoples time.

12 10 2011
socialjerk

It’s funny, because your first instinct is that we should be erring on the side of caution and calling things in if there’s any question. But once you work in the field for a while, it becomes apparent that sometimes this creates even more problems.

11 10 2011
Carolyn

Our typical response for a situation that we are unclear on (we are medical social workers in a children’s hospital) is we call in to consult with our CPS friends. And then they make the call (virtually) as to whether or not this needs to be really called in. Then we give them our names to make it all official.

12 10 2011
socialjerk

We usually consult as well when things are less than clear. I think most people in social work and related professions try to be careful and reasonable in what they call in, because, as we know, not every instance of questionable parenting can or should be reported. I think people who don’t work in these fields are surprised to hear how much grey area there is.

12 10 2011
Jeni

As a mandated reporter, I’m always worried that I’m going to make a mistake that stays with a family or parents for their lives. But so far I haven’t seen any kids who require such a measure. When I did my training, the teacher told us that she worked with a family where a child liked to put rubber bands on her arms but they looked like ligature marks so the family got reported. At least they were able to explain that one and it didn’t go any farther, but it makes you wonder. And I work in a school where there’s a much greater chance of needing a report than where I used to work. So I’m worried, but I know I have the child’s best interests at heart, which I think is what matters the most.

Any information or thoughts on what a teacher needs to be aware of in some of these cases? I have access to resources that most teachers probably wouldn’t have…For instance, I have a child who has been absent for more than half of the school days so far this year, but that obviously warrants a trip to our Family Services worker (we have two on staff).

17 10 2011
socialjerk

Mistakes are always going to happen, in any field. I just had an instance in which something absolutely ridiculous was called in on a family I work with. It’s frustrating, and it will make things take a little longer, but it will be OK. I think you’re right that having the child’s best interests at heart is what matters most. You know you’re not going out of your way to mess with someone.

I think listening to the child and also listening to your instincts are important. If something is gnawing away at you, it’s probably best to make the call. I often find myself questioning if my parents did certain things, especially when it comes to leaving kids home alone, and at what age that’s OK. It’s also important to look for patterns and not expect perfection. The case that I mentioned was just called in involved an 8 year old having a bruise on his arm. Obviously, little kids get bruises, and it’s not as though he was coming to school black and blue every day.

Definitely take advantage of people you work with who might have more experience with this, or a different perspective (like the family service worker.) And remember that you do know what you’re talking about 🙂

22 12 2012
michelle

My mother is mad at me because I told her I wouldn’t let her see my son sense she locked us out nearly two months ago n hasn’t tried to even ask us how we are all over nothing at all and the next day Cps was at my door. I think this is completely ridiculous because I’m a great mother I may not b rich but my son has everything he needs n is well loved n cared for but thanks to her wanting to b vindictive I have to prove to Cps that I’m a good mother. So I understand this n I wish people would understand that your not just hurting the mother or father your hurting the kids to get to the mother or father n that just isn’t right

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