One never knows

27 10 2011

If I’m writing at midnight, it’s almost never good.

I’ve mentioned before that I used to work in a youth center. I spent two years there before I ran screaming, leaving an SJ shaped hole in the front door. The job appealed to me because I knew I wanted to work in child welfare, but I wasn’t ready to jump straight into graduate school after college.

This place was a neighborhood center with pre-k classes, an afterschool program, and teen groups. I helped out in pre-k, and ran the afterschool program my second year. I was 22 and blown away by the amount of responsibility I was given. It was a massive struggle, but I learned a lot.

I also cried a lot. Ask my dad about those phone calls.

My organizational skills grew. (I still managed to lose a pair of pants this week, but still.) I learned to do more with less. (Twenty dollars to take fourteen kids ice skating? Done!) I developed my scary Teacher Voice. Most importantly, I took on the responsibilities of a supervisor. I helped hire new staff, all of whom had to be approved by the director, and managed them. I delegated not unlike a mofo.

There was one college kid who started volunteering for us as a freshman. We liked him. He was reliable and good with the kids. So we ended up hiring him. My coworker and I advocated strongly for this. (The program was essentially held together with Elmer’s glue, dried macaroni, and dreams, so hires were unusual.)

This was a rare student who wasn’t volunteering to fulfill a course requirement, or for community service hours following a particularly rowdy rugby initiation, or for credit for an internship. He just wanted to volunteer. I had volunteered plenty when I was in college, in similar programs, so this was something I understood.

Of course, when he was hired, he had to jump through all of the hoops. Fingerprinting. Background check.

Nothing came up. So he came on trips with us, helped out in pre-k, coached in the basketball tournament, brought disabled children to the bathroom, supervised swimming trips. All the responsibilities an employee might have.

After jumping through the necessary hoops.

I left over four years ago. I went to social work school and started working at Anonymous Agency. He stayed at the youth center until he graduated.

I got a call from that coworker, who advocated so strongly for this hire with me. She had gotten curious about this kid, after not hearing from him for a while and finding his Facebook page was shut down.

A bit of googling led to her discovering that he’s in jail, convicted of being a part of an international child pornography ring. Further internet sleuthing informed us that he was active in this group while working for us.

This was a guy that we liked. Someone we took out for drinks on his 21st birthday. Who used to noogie me when I was calling for everyone’s attention at staff meeting. Someone who babysat my coworker’s children.

Usually when we hear things like this in the news, we wonder why no one did anything. After it comes out, people always say they had their suspicions. He gave off a creepy vibe, she was too interested in this one kid, he leaned in too close, tried to spend time alone with kids, whatever.

We had no idea. None.

It’s even scarier to think that this is possible. I don’t fancy myself to be some naive shrinking violet who would be oblivious to such signs. I grew up in the Catholic church–there were other people I thought I could trust, when it turned out I couldn’t. I’m not so meek that I would hesitate to go with my gut. I don’t take the safety of children lightly.

But I had no idea. Not even an inkling. He wasn’t creepy, he didn’t make weird comments, he wasn’t even too perfect. Looking back, I’m desperately searching for signs. Something I ignored, something that seemed like nothing at the time. But I can’t think of one thing. Neither can my coworker.

Now we’re trying to figure out if he hurt children we worked with. It seems unlikely, that there wouldn’t have been time, the center was always so open, there was always more than one adult with a child. But then, we never had any suspicions that he was even like this. What else did we miss?

This is all just reminding me of how precious our jobs are. We are trusted with other people’s children. For however long. They are in our care. It’s terrifying to think that we can fail them. That we might be fooled by a sweet nature, cute Joe College looks, a self-deprecating sense of humor, and an ability to fit in with the rest of the staff.

We never know. We never really know. I’ve always been very anti-hysteria, especially when the hysteria-of-choice seems to be directed at men who work with children. Because it isn’t fair.

But this has shaken me in a way I can’t describe. I’m not even entirely sure what the lesson is. At the moment, I feel like it’s “trust no one,” but I know that isn’t possible. We need support. Kids need caring adults in their lives.

But we never know.

Chester, this is the last time I’m gonna tell you…

1 09 2011

There’s a very awkward, complicated problem that comes with being an adult who works with children. I bet a lot of you can already guess what it is.

My parents tell stories about growing up in the 1950s and 60s. A nice guy in their neighborhood who used to take them to the World’s Fair for the afternoon, helping adult neighbors who didn’t have children around their houses, that kind of thing. No one batted an eye.

There was the one creepy guy on the corner, who all the children were instructed to run past, but other than that, sexual abuse wasn’t really a thought. Fortunately it worked out all right for them. The well-meaning adults in their lives were just that. But of course, as awareness of sexual abuse rose, it became apparent that a lot of people aren’t to be trusted with children, and they are not always the people you think.

We’ve kind of swung the other way in our culture. From, “You want to take my kid to the movies? And  you’re buying? Hell yeah, do whatever he says, kiddo” to “Don’t post photos of my child on Facebook, the pedophiles are in the computer and they’re tracking her!”

It’s worst for men…what kind of guy wants to work with kids? I mean, there must be something going on. That’s so often the first reaction, and it’s repulsive. Plenty of men want to work with kids for the same reasons women want to work with kids–kids are funny, they’re cute, and it’s nice to think that you can make an impact on someone who is still impressionable.

But this is still a part of the job. It starts at the very beginning. (A very good place to start.) When I was hired at Anonymous Agency, I was required to undergo a background check and get fingerprinted. Curiously, I did not have to do this when I was an intern. At my previous job, at a neighborhood youth center, we required this of interns and all employees. Good thing, because we did once have a convicted sex offender come in looking for work.

Dude, your picture is on the internet. Are you kidding me?

Given that scare, I’m on board with the policy. This is what we do. They’re also not just looking for sex offenders, there are a lot of restrictions, including a history with child protective services, that could make on ineligible for certain jobs with kids.

Then there are the discussions in staff meetings. Is it ever OK to be in a room alone with a child? What about during a home visit? Do you go into a child’s bedroom? What if a teenager is home alone when you show up for a visit?

The assumption isn’t that anyone we work with would want to hurt a child. It’s that you want to avoid the appearance of anything that could possibly be “misinterpreted.” And that’s all anyone will say. Because people get uncomfortable.

I’ve had it happen, on numerous occasions, that I’ve gone to a home and found a teenager there alone. The kids are usually polite and welcoming. There’s no hard and fast rule, so we’re always told to use our judgment. Recently, I went to an apartment and found a sixteen year old girl at home with her twelve year old sister. I stood in the doorway, we talked for a few minutes, and I left a note for their mother. Last Christmas, I tried to do a home visit and found a sixteen year old boy, who seemed to be permanently leering, at home alone. In his eagerness to answer the door, he neglected to put on a shirt. When he asked if I wanted to come in, despite his mother being out, I politely declined.

Actually, I shouted, “NO I DO NOT WISH TO COME IN, WITNESSES, CAN YOU HEAR ME?” and put an SJ-shaped hole in the front door.

That neighborhood youth center that I started at was actually a Catholic organization, which meant that they had to meet certain requirements set by the diocese. One of these was a rather strange day long training that involved videos and discussion. (I won’t say the name here, but I’m sure some people are familiar with it.)

It was well-intended, I thought, given the Catholic church’s history ongoing bullshit on the subject. (I came to feel that they were primarily trying to cover the church’s ass, and to point out that just because there was an epidemic of child abuse and a cover-up of epic proportions within the church, doesn’t mean that all pedophiles are priests. Because that’s what’s important.) The videos were designed to teach us how to spot sexual abuse, and how to avoid doing anything that might lead to false accusations.

Some of the suggestions made sense. Avoid being alone with one child. Meet with kids in rooms with windows.

Some of them seemed to have been written by someone who had never met a child.

“Don’t touch the kids.”
OK, when I have to pull a splinter out of a crying five year old’s foot, I’ll just pat her on the head with a roll of paper towels. And I’ll tell them all that I’m made of hot lava.

“Don’t help the kids change.”
If I could avoid it, I would, but we had 1.) low-functioning autistic children who were not yet toilet trained and 2.) a pre-k program. Parents, I know those little belts, suspenders, and overalls are just adorable, but if you don’t want your child’s pre-k teacher having anything to do with their pants, stick to elastic waistbands.

“Don’t have favorites.”
Well, I can’t help it if some kids are way more awesome than others.

Then there was the “spotting child abusers,” which supposedly contained stories from actual victims of sexual abuse. Interestingly enough, they hadn’t managed to find one child who had been abused by a priest. Strange, because I know many who are willing to say quite a lot about the church. They went through all the usual hullabaloo, informing us that child molesters are not “strangers,” lurking in the bushes, waiting to snatch your children. They’re people you know, people you trust. (Like…priests?)

They then showed a video of a concerned mother watching a greasy-haired man, dressed like a longshoreman, approaching her children in a playground, next to some shrubbery.

I really recommend these videos for home entertainment.

I’m glad that we’re vigilant about child abuse, of course. But it makes me sad to see what a part of my job it’s become. Not assessing for abuse in families I work with, but making sure no one thinks that my coworkers or I am up to no good.

Paranoia doesn’t help anyone. It leads to panic, and good people, men especially, being afraid to work with children because they don’t want the suspicion and hassle. And that doesn’t make anyone safer.

I’ll be banging my head against a wall, if anyone needs me

20 06 2011

Domestic violence is a difficult topic to work with. It’s one of those situations in which we all know the right answer–leave. Do whatever you have to in order to survive, then run and never look back.

Of course, we all know it’s not that easy. The victim, or survivor, whatever terminology you prefer, in these situations, has reasons that prevent him or her from leaving and staying away. (All of the domestic violence situations I work with are men being abusive towards women, so that’s what I’ll be referring to here. But I am well aware that women can be the aggressors, and that violence occurs in same sex couples as well. Equal opportunity, yeah!)

There are reasons that the women I work with stay in these relationships. Some are concrete–they are financially dependent on this man, they live in his apartment, they’re worried about custody of the children. Some are a bit harder to understand, but no less real–they grew up in an abusive home, and view the situation as normal, they grew up without a father and are looking for love and acceptance.

We understand why these situations exist, and how the cycle perpetuates itself. Things get better for a while, the “honeymoon phase.” It’s not so much a “honeymoon” as it is “how your partner should treat you as a person,” but there you go. The victim, who has bene through so much already, wants to believe that things are really better.

Domestic violence is so frustrating to work with because it is a cycle. You can predict, with great certainty, what’s coming next. Things will get bad again. Especially when the abuser has decided that he’ll “just stop.” No treatment, no time away from the home. He’s just not going to hit the woman he supposedly loves anymore. It was pointed out to him that this was a bad thing to do, and he’ll knock it off.

Right. My hopes are high. (And so is he, if he thinks I believe that.)

Like almost every other situation we deal with, we can’t give our clients the answer. We can plan for safety, discuss the risks, talk about what this is doing to them and their children, but we can’t make anyone leave.

A family I’m currently working with had this situation come up. The case was called in due to some domestic violence that the children had witnessed. The father of the youngest child (but not the three older children) agreed to leave. Nothing legally binding, but he did sign a contract, along with the ACS worker, oldest kids, and mother, saying he would leave the home.

About a month later, I found out he was back. Several weeks later, I found out he never really left.

It wasn’t the mother’s choice, so it didn’t work. She wasn’t ready to cut ties with him. She wanted him in her son’s life, and didn’t feel that she had the right to prevent this man from seeing his child. There’s no restraining order, and he hasn’t hit the children. So it is her decision.

If it were up to me, I would chase him out of the apartment myself while beating him with a shoe and shouting emasculating insults. But I’m told that I can’t do that.

Then there are restraining orders. Often, these feel more like restraining suggestions, because they don’t seem to carry a lot of weight. People get them, then continue to see the person they’re not supposed to be seeing. Many people don’t pursue them at all, until the court steps in. “How is a piece of paper supposed to help me?” I know the right answer, that they can help, but someone in that situation, who knows what their abuser is capable of, can’t be convinced. They’re usually right.

A lot of women I work with seem to keep restraining orders in their back pocket. I’ve been told many times, “Well, I went over there, but I reminded him that I have the restraining order.” “I let him move back in, but I still have the restraining order, so I can kick him out if I want to.” I didn’t think it would be so hard to explain that this isn’t exactly how these are supposed to work.

At times, though, they work. If someone is really ready to move on and cut ties, and is really ready to call the police whenever this guy shows up, or calls (and the police are ready to take it seriously) they can work. One of the young mothers I work with has spoken so regularly with her ex-boyfriend’s parole office, I think they’re going to start trading casserole recipes. She is very serious about keeping this guy away from the family.

Another woman, and her seven children, have a restraining order against the father. “Well, my oldest was home when he threw boiling oil at me, he tried to get her too.” Charming man.

Mom is done with the guy, according to her. He just got released from prison, so time will tell. Fortunately, she is taking the restraining order seriously. As much as she wants to let the kids see their father (and who wouldn’t?) they are all old sadly overly informed enough to understand what the order means. They don’t want their father going back to jail. So for the time being, they’re staying away. I hope that this gives us enough time to work with mom and the kids on the trauma they’ve been through, so that when this guy inevitably comes knocking on their door, they’ll be able to call the cops.

It’s infuriating, though. Everything is on the victims, as so often happens. They have to be the one to leave, they have to be the one to make the call. When they decide it’s time to go, they’re the ones who have to leave their support system, home, job, and schools behind to go into a shelter that’s a safe distance away. I don’t know what the better way to do it would be, exactly.

But I think a little pressure could be taken off these women. Who wants to have to share details of their abuse with a stranger, in order to be approved for a housing transfer?  Shouldn’t a police report be enough? Who needs to be berated by a judge or protective worker for staying with an abusive partner, and be told that the children are being put at risk? As if this mother didn’t know her own situation. Maybe men who do things like hit women or throw boiling oil at children should get the jail time they deserve. Maybe they should be the ones who have to move and give up their lives and comfort zone.

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of people prefer the term survivor. It’s empowering, I get that. But we also need to remember that these people, most often women and children, have been victimized, and need someone to fight for them until they are able to fight for themselves.

And in the meantime, we need to cope with our own frustrations to ensure we don’t tell people what they’ve always been told–it’s kind of your fault you’re in this situation, why don’t you just leave, you’re being a bad mother. Because we know that doesn’t work. So we need to do whatever works–walk, drink, talk, howl at the moon, start a snarky, angry blog, whatever.

I promise, that last one helps.

Social Workers Like Us

26 05 2011

It’s three a.m., and I am blogging. This is not how I planned out my evening.

Dr. Mom attended The New York Women’s Foundation “Celebrating Women Breakfast” this past weekend. She gave me a book that she got there: “Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, an Activist Finds Her Calling and Heals Herself.” It was written by Rachel Lloyd, a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation, who founded Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS.)

It would seem that this book affected me emotionally. By that I mean it ripped my heart out, stomped all over it, and showed it to me while I was still alive. Did I mention it left me wanting more?

So I decided to watch a movie, Very Young Girls (available on Netflix Instant Watch), which is a documentary about the girls GEMS works with, and the work that they do. Guess what? Sleep continues to evade me.

But I still highly recommend both, especially to my fellow social workers. Unless you work for an organization like GEMS, where the mission is specifically geared towards working with this population, you might forget what a serious problem it is. And the fact that it likely affects people we work with.

It’s so easy to make light of this situation. I’ve been guilty of it myself.

What’s that, you say? No one would mock exploited children. What the hell is wrong with you, SocialJerk? The thing is, we do it all the time.

People like victims. Nice, neat, wrapped up in a bow, no blame could conceivably be placed on their shoulders victims. If a suburban girl is kidnapped, beaten, raped, forced to do drugs, and sold against her will, then clearly, she is a victim. If a woman living under an opppressive, totalitarian government is promised a better life in America, and then sold into slavery, we can agree that she’s been victimized. We can all feel like good guys by writing letters to the editor, saying that the thugs that did this (they were black, right?) should be creatively killed in public (I’m the only one with the guts to say it!) and we should take up a collection to help this girl (hey, it’s the thought that counts.)

Actual scenarios are usually much messier. Was she taken and held against her will? Yes. Physically? Not always. Does she do drugs? Does she swear a lot? Does she seem like she doesn’t even want help? Does she keep running back to her pimp?

It’s harder to feel sympathy for girls who, though they’re only 13, don’t look 13. They certainly don’t act like it, y’knowwhatimsayin’? They’re prostitutes. OK, their lives were tough, but things were tough for a lot of people, and they don’t sell themselves on a street corner. Plus pimps wear those hilarious clothes! And I like rap music!

I worked with one girl, back when I was an intern, who broke my heart on a regular basis. Her mother was a drug addict and had a pimp. That man owned her mother. So when my girl was born, the pimp wound up on the birth certificate, though no one seemed to think he was really the father.

The mother drifted in and out of this girl’s life, until she was eventually murdered. My girl spent the majority of her life being raised by her grandmother.

But her mother’s pimp? His name on the birth certificate gave him legal rights. So he took this girl to visit him from the age of five, which is when he started selling her for sex. It was a long time before her grandmother could prove to the courts that seeing this piece of shit (I’m going to let that one ride) was not in this child’s best interests.

This girl wanted nothing more than to please others. She would bring ice cream for the other girls in group. She accompanied one girl to a doctor’s appointment when the father wasn’t willing to go. Once she came in with a good report card, smiling from ear to ear. Her grandmother certainly loved her, but she had a very difficult time showing it. When she brought that report card home, grandma had patted this 15 year old on the arm, and told her she was proud.

When this girl was 12, she began to realize that she had developed into a rather beautiful young girl, with a body that made her look about 16. Guys who had known her mother showed an interest in her. She had never experienced healthy love from a man, never had any kind of father figure. So when guys wanted to spend time with her, which turned into them wanting sex, she went along with it.

When one man, who had always looked out for her, told her that he would bring her to a party, she was thrilled. Then he asked if she would dance, make some money for them both, so she did it. She wanted the money, but she really wanted to please this guy. There were more parties, more dancing, and the line of what she wouldn’t do kept getting blurred, until she ended up having sex for money.

What would you have done, if you were her? How would you have avoided it?

She wasn’t the only one. Two of the eight girls in that group had been sexually exploited at some point. Angelica, who I wrote about a while back, saw prostitution as her only viable source of income, and planned to enter the life when she got out of the hospital. Other girls in group considered it. They all talked about “zoning out,” playing a song in their heads–dissociating, to those of us in the know.

It’s a bleak picture. But Girls Like Us and Very Young Girls gives us exactly what we need as social workers, or at least, what I need. Ebony, who is hilarious and talented, but can’t seem to stay out of the life. She knows what she wants, and what she needs to do to get it, but she’s just not ready. Girls like Carolina and Kim, who are on the road to improving their lives.

And then there is Dominique, who is adorable and wears her heart on her sleeve. You hear her story, which is more than any child should have to deal with, and get to see what she’s up to now–marrying a guy she describes as “beautiful inside and out,” realizing she deserves to be loved, working at GEMS and raising her daughter, conscious that she wants a different life for her child.

She’s only 20, but she seems to be one of those rare success stories that keeps us all going.

You start to feel bad for people who don’t get to see how lovable these girls are. Gossiping about mutual acquaintances, hamming it up and dancing for the camera, talking about their little sisters, doing each other’s hair. To look at them and see broken, used children, teen prostitutes, too far gone to be helped…it really is the loss of everyone who doesn’t give these girls a chance.

I’m being sincere…no, seriously

21 04 2011

We all have cases that get to us. They take up more of our time than they should when we’re with them, and we continue to think about them and wonder how they’re doing, even after they’re closed. Cases like this kind of define our experience as workers. We wish Steven Spielberg would direct a film about our triumphs and tribulations with them.

My defining case came to me my first week on the job, almost two years ago. A mother was pursuing a PINS petition for her supposedly “out of control” (oh, aren’t they all?) 14 year old daughter. The 14 year old, let’s call her Angelica.

Angelica was an intimidating kid. She was big, and looked much older than 14. She got in fights on the street and at school. She had a mouth like a sailor. (At least, that’s what I’ve heard, I don’t know many sailors.) There were allegations that she was engaging in, what I documented as, “inappropriate sexual activity.” Meaning her mom heard rumors that she was blowing older guys in the stairwell.

Mom…mom was a treat. When they first came in, she wanted nothing to do with me, or our services. She just wanted Angelica out of her house. She was fed up. She told me that her daughter was the only one to give her trouble. Her three older sons were always respectful. (I later learned that they all served jail time. Two for robbery, one for attempted murder.) At times, mom was just nasty to Angelica. They fought like teenage girls.

But for all mom said about being done with her daughter, she still “kidnapped” her the day of her eighth grade graduation and brought her to IHOP, a surprise they couldn’t afford. She worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, as a home health aide. She slept on a mattress  in the living room. Angelica had a bedroom, which she retreated to often to write poetry. Her brother, his girlfriend, and their two children had the other bedroom.

This kid just got to me. I had her for individual counseling, mostly. After she threw a chair in a mom and daughter counseling session, we decided it would make sense to work individually for a while. Not to mention that mom had no time for counseling, and really didn’t think that she had anything to do with the problem.

This girl was difficult, but she was also hilarious. We laughed in session more than is at all appropriate. And I never had to chase her down. She always wanted to tell me what she had done well–when she avoided a fight, poems she had written, times she made her bed or prepared dinner for her mom. This kid ate praise up like no one I had ever met. It seemed like she had never heard anyone say that she was good before.

But it was always two steps forward, one step back with this family. Or three steps back. Sometimes it seemed like they were running backwards. Angelica would stay out all night. Mom would respond by calling her a slut. Angelica would roam the street, waiting for someone to look at her the wrong way.

One of Angelica’s older brothers came home from prison over the summer. Mom made Angelica give up her room, and sleep in the living room with mom.

Eventually Angelica had such a fit at home that mom called 911, and she was admitted to a children’s psychiatric hospital.

It was supposed to be brief. She had been brought into the ER before, but never admitted. But the days turned to weeks. Angelica was admitted at the beginning of the summer, and talk of getting her home by the fourth of July eventually turned into hope that she would be home in time to start the new school year. She celebrated her 15th birthday there. I brought her a journal, which she kept with her the rest of her stay.

Mom didn’t visit Angelica at first, saying it was too far and she couldn’t afford it. So she started traveling with me. We went for weekly meetings with the psychiatrist, which often resulted in Angelica having to be restrained. I visited even when mom decided she couldn’t make it. Angelica would call me with her food order every week, telling me if she was in the mood for Chinese or McDonald’s. We had lunch together in the tiny visiting room, while Angelica asked for updates on her nephews.

Every time it came close to Angelica being discharged, something happened. Once, she returned from a day pass, saying that she had smoked marijuana over the weekend. The test came back negative. She was sabatoging herself.

Angelica befriended a girl on her unit, who had been sexually abused. Angelica confided in this girl, who encouraged her to tell her psychiatrist, the secret that Angelica had been holding on to for ten years–her older brother, the one who recently returned home from prison, the one Angelica was pushed out of her bedroom for, the one who mom enlisted to help discipline Angelica, had raped Angelica when she was five.

Angelica told us this with a blank face. She started having nightmares and flashbacks. Mom was distraught and didn’t know how to react.

The psychiatrists villified mom. She hadn’t protected Angelica, she wasn’t reacting properly now. They compared the situation to the movie “Precious.” (Because that helps. A lot.) They pretended as though Angelica’s mother could be written out of her life, and Angelica could become a grand, triumphant success story without her.

It was easy to blame this woman. She was far from perfect. But she was incredibly damaged herself. She was the kind of mother that Angelica would probably become, if she hadn’t gotten all the help she was getting in the hospital. Though she warmed and opened up to me over the course of our time together, going so far as to call me for support when she felt that she needed to be hospitalized for her own depression, she refused to discuss her own childhood.

I have no idea what happened, but I have some pretty good guesses.

Shortly after all this, I had to close the case. There was no child in the home, and  the family had been evicted, and moved out of the Bronx. My supervisor held off on this for as long as possible. For a long time, I was the only one Angelica had any contact with that she had known before her life in the hospital. But the time had come for us to close.

Angelica cried when I told her. She told me how everyone leaves her, and she didn’t want to get to know anyone else. Somehow I held it together. But I cried plenty afterwards.

We had our last meeting a few weeks later. We shared french fries and she made fun of me for drinking diet coke, as usual. She gave me an art project she had been working on. I told her I’d be thinking of her, always, and that I wanted to hear from her when she was on the supreme court. She laughed and hugged me good bye.

I’m at peace with the way things went. I wish they could have gone differently, but that’s the job. You can’t stay with people until the end, because there is no end. You can just hope that you’ve done everything you can, let them know that someone cares about them, and, at best, send them off with better tools and skills to cope with what life hands them.

I ran into one of Angelica’s psychiatrists on the train recently. We approached the case from different professions, and somewhat different values, but we both cared deeply for this girl. Neither of us had heard from her family, and we didn’t know where she was or how she was doing.

I just hope she knows that we’re both still thinking about her. I think she’d appreciate that.

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.