“An infant, a motel room, and a pile of needles...” In Anna, Age Eight, Chapter 5: "The impossible work of child welfare professions" the authors share their experiences working in Child Protective Services and offer data-driven solutions.
When the next high- profile case of child abuse occurs, the news reporters will ask, “What was child protective services role in this…who knew what, when and how could this happen?” Child welfare does have a vital role in protecting our children, along with other state agencies and each mayor, city councilmember, county commissioner and school board member. As stated in Anna, Age Eight by Katherine Ortega Courtney, PhD and Dominic Cappello, there is plenty of blame to go around in a society where children are traumatized, abused, neglected, and die daily.
Preventing another case like Anna’s requires strengthening continuous quality improvement and empowering the workforce with data, technology and collaborative partnerships.
Child Welfare is the one government agency funded to assess our children’s safety when reports of suspected maltreatment are reported. Those who have worked within this system will share the enormous challenges faced daily by the entire child welfare workforce. Most child welfare systems are woefully underfunded, understaffed, and constantly struggling to recruit and retain qualified staff. Many departments are lacking state-of-the-art technology, and field workers are tasked with assessing safety, and trying to link deeply troubled parents to urgently needed community systems of care that may not exist.
In Anna, Age Eight, Chapter 5: “An infant, a motel room, and a pile of needles: The impossible work of child welfare pros” we provide a segment focused on how to fix child welfare, based on the authors’ experience developing continuous quality improvement programs for child welfare leadership in New Mexico, New York City, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 5
We all make mistakes, but when Child Protective Services makes a mistake it can cost a child’s life. While very rare, child fatalities may be the direct cause of a staffer’s misjudgment. It could be the result of missing or incomplete files, a case being transferred to other staff without sufficient briefings, or just having a very distracted week with a million other pressing tasks to finish. As former employees of child welfare operations, we have collaborated with some of the noblest, most hard-working colleagues we’ve ever encountered. But we also know that cases like Anna’s, to varying degrees, happen all too frequently in all too many communities. And that troubles us deeply.
SUSAN WAS ASLEEP as the clock slouched toward 1 a.m., when the phone rang. The Child Protective Services statewide intake hotline center was on the other end, and they wanted her at a motel near the airport right away. Police had already arrived, and would be waiting for her.
As Susan turned into the parking lot, she noticed a squad car blocking an old van in its parking spot in front of a room. Outside, a mom we’ll call Laura cried and spoke into a phone: “You got to come over now, Ed,” she said. “Get the hell back here.” She was slurring her words, thanks to some as-yet-unknown substance, or more likely, substances.
Inside the dingy motel room, a four-year-old girl named Jen sat on a chair, looking as though it was way past her bedtime. And in the bathroom, an infant we’ll call Lizzy cried from a car seat, an array of syringes splayed around her on the floor.
Susan’s job as a Child Protective Services investigator, at this hour so late it was almost early, was to determine, in consultation with the police, if the kids needed to go straight into protective custody, or to some family member. Ed turned out to be the father, but before too long it became obvious that he was not coming. Clearly, Laura was in no shape to parent at the moment.
Susan would spend the rest of the night and a good chunk of the morning trying to track down relatives, and after not finding a suitable one, contacting a list of over-worked, under-supported foster parents, all with the goal of finding a safe place for the kids to go. Thus began, for her, another day at the office.
So it goes every hour of every day and every night. As you read this, somewhere out there in America, there is something awful like this happening – some equivalent of Lizzy, in the car seat on the hotel bathroom floor, surrounded by syringes.
You don’t need a license to have kids, and there’s no authority that routinely checks up on people to make sure they’re not botching the job spectacularly. But once in a while, things get so bad that we as a society decide it’s time to intervene, and that intervention takes the form of sending people like Susan to dingy hotel rooms in the middle of the night. As we do with the cops, we scrape together a pile of intractable problems from society’s most challenging corners, dump them into the lap of some bureaucrat, and say, “here, handle this.” Meanwhile, the rest of us get off easy, raging as we do against irresponsible moms, deadbeat dads, drugs, or perhaps an entire ethnicity, then calling it a day.
Investigator Susan knows that rage will not actually find a permanent and safe home for the girls, so she must engage in a protracted investigation full of judgement calls, reports, and interviews that really comes down to a simple question: Will these kids live with their parents or not?
All things being equal, of course, kids are better off in the family home. The attachments we form to parents are powerful and rupturing them is all but guaranteed to bring with it major consequences. Kids taken away from their parents have all kinds of trouble relating to others – what we formally call emotional attachment – and those problems can continue for decades. This severely constrains their ability to build their own healthy families, make money, build social capital, and generally be happy.
Taking kids into custody, meanwhile, also causes them trauma. Foster homes are often in short supply, and group homes are a poor imitation of the family life that all kids need. The process, even with the most well-resourced child welfare system, adds a few straws to the camel’s back of emotional health in already traumatized children.