Confessions of a caseworker: We remove kids to protect ourselves

It’s hard to imagine many jobs more difficult than that of a caseworker for a child protective services agency. The hours are long, the pay is low, the stress is high and the stakes can be, literally, life and death. Most workers have the best of intentions.

But one of the things caseworkers often say is just not true. Caseworkers often claim they are “damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t.” But when it comes to taking away children, caseworkers are only damned if they don’t. It’s one of the reasons so many children are needlessly consigned to the chaos of foster care.

Now, a leader of a union representing caseworkers has admitted as much.

It happened last June when a committee of the Philadelphia City Council examined problems at the Department of Human Services, the agency that runs child welfare in the city. Among the issues: the fact that Philadelphia takes away children at one of the highest rates of any big city.

That was true even before the legislature passed a spate of new state laws in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The laws encourage anyone and everyone to report anything and everything to the state child abuse hotline. Reports have skyrocketed and, in much of the state, so have removals.

Usually at hearings such as the one in Philadelphia, caseworkers and agency chiefs offer up bland boilerplate about how they really, truly hate to take away children and only do it as a last resort — almost always adding that they’re “damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”

But this time Vanessa Fields, vice president of District Council 47 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, cut right through all that b.s. With commendable candor, she declared:

“Workers are afraid that they're going to be disciplined if anything goes wrong on a case. So their thing is, Well, I'm just going to take the kid out of the home and put them in care. That way, I don't have to worry about being written up or disciplined because I left the children in the home and something happened to them. … You place that kid outside of that home, because you do not want to be in a situation where you left a child in a home and something happened to them.”

But what about all those case practice models, risk assessment forms and assorted other documents that are supposed to guide how caseworkers do their jobs? Apparently, those are for suckers. Said Fields:

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“People aren't paying any attention to that guidance thing, the format that you use on the hotline. They're not paying attention to that or those other forms. Their thing is, I want to have a job. Okay?”

As interesting as what Fields said is what she did not say. She expressed no fear of discipline for taking away too many children. Nor should she. In 40 years of following child welfare I have never seen a caseworker fired, demoted, suspended or even slapped on the wrist for that.

On the rare occasion when a family harmed this way brings a civil suit, caseworkers have “qualified immunity.” In layman’s terms that means they’re immune from damages unless they do something incredibly malicious or incredibly stupid. In one case, a worker actually claimed what amounted to a constitutional right to lie. Fortunately, that claim failed, but the worker in question wasn’t fired. She was promoted.

Fields also did not offer up that all-purpose excuse: “We don’t remove children on our own. The courts have to approve everything we do.” In fact, in every state caseworkers and/or law enforcement take away children on their own whenever they decide the case is an “emergency.” Parents have to fight to get their children back days or weeks later. Judges almost always rubber-stamp these removals.

Again, to her great credit, Fields does not pretend otherwise. She repeatedly refers to workers, acting on their own authority, removing children in order to protect themselves, not the children.

It’s not easy to fix this. Fields complained about the fact that in one particularly horrific case, workers were criminally prosecuted and one went to jail. But in that case, workers were convicted of repeatedly failing to visit the child and then engaging in massive falsification of records to cover it up. On very rare occasions criminal charges are warranted.

The problem is the lack of penalty for wrongful removal. The solution to that is something almost never seen in child welfare agencies: strong leadership. Child welfare agency leaders need to send a message: If you make an honest error we will support you. If media try to scapegoat you for tragedies beyond your control we’ll have your back. But if your negligence or incompetence causes errors in any direction — whether it’s leaving a child in a dangerous home or taking a child needlessly — you will be accountable.

It can be done. Pittsburgh is subject to those same post-Sandusky laws as Philadelphia. But there’s been no increase in foster care in Pittsburgh. Because in Pittsburgh, they won’t permit it.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org

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