Want to know why children “slip through the cracks at child welfare agencies?” There are a lot of reasons, and most of them are spelled out in this first-rate article (Stockton Record, 2/20/11). I’ve complained before about “overworked and underpaid” CPS case workers; this article puts flesh on those bones. It’s only partly about an infant girl, Raziah Bates who died at the age of 11 months. It says little about her mother, Bianca Armstead, who’s been arrested and charged with torture and murder stemming from Raziah’s death. No, the article is about Child Protective Services of San Joaquin County, California that was contacted three times by anonymous callers saying that Raziah was being abused. The first of those came when the child was two months old, the second when she was about nine months. The third resulted in a visit to the home by a case worker who wrote in her report that the child was “healthy and happy.” Two weeks later, she was dead. An incompetent or indifferent case worker? Probably not. An overworked one? Almost certainly. Here’s the article’s thumbnail sketch of what a CPS case worker is supposed to do in each referral.
Under state guidelines, social workers have a duty to perform timely investigations of abuse reports. Depending on the severity of the allegations, they must visit the child within hours, or within 10 days of the report. After that, they have 30 days to conduct further interviews, to research a parent’s background, to visit schools and doctors, to check in with the child again – and finally to decide whether abuse occurred, and if so, what to do about it.
But beyond that, the failure of CPS to prevent the death of Raziah Bates came from a Sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of case workers and supervisors alike. Inscribed on that sword are the words “keep costs down.” Studies of child welfare case work encourage case loads of 10-13 new referrals per worker per month. But personnel in San Joaquin County CPS receive six new cases a week on average, or about twice the recommended number. And even that number is sometimes exceeded. Case workers maintain a steady state of about 30 cases a month. Each of those cases is supposed to get at least nine hours of a worker’s time, although 12 is preferred. The lower figure would have workers putting in 270 hours a month or about 63 hours a week. The higher figure would mean about 84 hours a week or 12 hours a day, seven days a week. High-powered law firms expect that kind of time from associates; government bureaucracies, not so much. Interim deputy director of Children’s Services, John Greco disputes the claims of case workers about their workloads. He claims that, on average they receive only 13-17 new cases a month. That claim is directly contradicted by a 2007 report to the state Department of Social Services that said that six cases a week is the average. The high case load may stem from the fact that, “[s]taffing levels are largely determined by how much money comes from state and federal sources,” instead of the number of new cases workers are assigned. And speaking of money, San Joaquin County CPS specifically discourages overtime by its case workers. I know what you’re thinking; how can they put 30 cases a month on these people and not pay overtime? Good question. The answer, it turns out, is simple; don’t do a very thorough job. As case supervisor Michael Perez, now on medical leave said,
“Basically, social workers have time to get in and get out.”
That’s because they and their immediate superiors are under pressure to close cases within 30 days. Keep a case open longer, and a worker faces discipline.
Once a month, on a day known to social workers as “Black Tuesday,” “Hell Tuesday” or “Killer Tuesday,” supervisors would check the status of investigations and tally how many had been open longer than guidelines allow.
After one or two verbal warnings for failing to close cases on time, supervisors issue a “counseling memo,” alerting social workers that they are out of compliance. If they fail again within the same 12-month period to close investigations on time, a formal letter of reprimand is issued. That letter remains in an employee’s personnel file for at least two years, and, while it is there, the employee is ineligible for transfers or promotions.
Perez himself was reprimanded for failing to issue such a letter to a subordinate. The emotional conflict of knowing the possible effects on children of forcing caseworkers to close cases prematurely sent Perez on medical leave.
“I couldn’t keep cracking the whip when I knew the caseloads were impossible,” he said. “My conscience finally got to me.”
Meanwhile, Raziah Bates remained in her mother’s care through one, two, three complaints of abuse to CPS. Only one of those resulted in even a visit by a caseworker who reported that everything looked fine. Raziah’s aunt disagrees.
Three days after the baby’s death, and in the midst of planning a funeral, she called child protection authorities: She “was very upset, indicating the CPS social worker told her sister, (Raziah’s) mother, that she was going to check to be sure medical treatment had been sought and that if it had not, she would be back to remove the baby,” according to the report. “She feels that if the social worker had checked as promised, the baby would have been removed and still alive today.”
Over the past 40 years we’ve seen a dramatic change in families and childcare in this country. Over that time, both the incidences of divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing have skyrocketed. That means that, to a degree never before known in modern times, children are left in the care of single parents. As should be obvious to all, single parents don’t have the time, the money or the resources that two parents have to attend to and care for children. Inevitably, that puts more children at greater risk of abuse and neglect than ever before. Our society does little to address this situation, leaving it pretty much up to the single parents to deal with. But one of society’s responses to child endangerment is child welfare agencies like CPS of San Joaquin County. The article lets us know pretty clearly just how that’s working out.
“Because you don’t have the time to provide the necessary services, and you don’t have the time to investigate, … sooner or later, it’s going to blow up,” said Vicki Norris, who spent nearly a decade investigating abuse reports as a social worker and still works in the agency. “That’s how you’re going to get dead kids.”