Here’s a caseworker’s point of view on the continuing scandal of Child Protective Services agencies (Bakersfield Californian, 8/14/11). Every day across the country articles appear about CPS agencies. Generally, they’re of three types. One is the run-of-the-mill “CPS workers took a child into care when they discovered its parents were abusing or neglecting it.” Another is of the “despite numerous warnings, CPS workers failed to protect a child and it either died or was injured” type. The third is the converse of the second and goes something like “CPS case workers took a child from parents who have done nothing wrong.” Type One is all too common.
An example of Type Two is here (ABC 15, 8/15/11). In that case, a Phoenix couple were arrested for child abuse of a six-year-old boy who died of brain injury. It’s the fifth time in four years CPS was called to the couple’s house. Type Two cases are the worst because children die or are seriously injured and CPS knew they were in danger. In Los Angeles County, some 70 children in less than three years died of abuse or neglect after CPS was notified of the risk to them. In one case I’ve reported on, Phoenix area CPS allowed a mother to kill her son with an overdose of opiates after she’d threatened to do exactly that. Type Three cases are ones like the Leonard case in Houston. There, a family was living in a storage warehouse and CPS took their four children including a nursing infant. At first blush, living in a mini-warehouse might seem abusive of children, but the Leonard’s was 10,000 square feet and had heating and air conditioning and was dry, clean and free of pests. The family had TV and computers with Internet access. What the place didn’t have was running water, but that was a few steps away. As I asked at the time, don’t CPS workers realize that people lived for thousands of years without indoor plumbing? The point being that, in two of the three types of cases, CPS caseworkers get it wrong. They either over- or underprotect. When they overprotect, parents complain and rightly so. When they underprotect, children suffer and everyone complains and again, rightly so. In short, CPS caseworkers have a hard job, and the consequences of poor performance can be dire indeed. Add to that the fact that many CPS workers are undertrained and undereducated and the chances of a Type Two or Three error get pretty high. Add to all of the above caseloads that every person knowledgeable about proper CPS practices knows to be excessive, and we can all but guarantee breakdowns that harm children and/or families. So I’m sympathetic to CPS caseworkers and was glad to see an op-ed written by one. I wanted to hear the caseworkers’ side of the story. And the linked-to editorial is sure an eye-opener, but not in the way I’d hoped. It’s a weird combination of sensible suggestions prefaced by “poor, poor pitiful me” complaining. The writer, Howard Acosta, served for 11 years as a Kern County, California CPS social worker, so he knows a lot about his subject. Unfortunately, he also seems to have absorbed a sense of personal injustice that seems to be unique to bureaucrats. Someone should explain to Acosta that, with a state audit of the Los Angeles County child welfare agency making headlines due to the deaths of 70 children, now is not the best time to tell readers that it’s child welfare workers who are the “vulnerable” ones. But that’s just what he does.
In a February 2011 article, “Child Welfare Workforce’s Burden,” in the National Association of Social Worker News, Dr. James J. Kelly nailed it when he wrote that CPS social workers are “vulnerable.”
How are they vulnerable?
[W]hen 100 percent safety for all children is not attained, social workers are susceptible to discipline up to terminations from punitive and/or unseasoned administrators who choose to play the “unethical and irresponsible blame-and-shame game” — a term coined by former Los Angeles CPS Director Anita M. Bock.
What’s Acosta’s solution?
Until laws are passed that protect our nation’s CPS protectors (like a moratorium, until we reach reforms, on discipline against CPS staff when non-overt mistakes are found), social workers remain sitting ducks to the carte blanche handed to CPS administrators.
It’s hard to believe that Acosta thinks this snivelling will play well with the general public. In a nutshell, his message is this: it’s CPS caseworkers, not children who are vulnerable; “vulnerable” means being disciplined at work, so if a child dies or is injured due to a caseworker’s negligence, it’s the caseworker we should feel sorry for; laws must be passed to protect caseworkers from discipline occasioned by their own negligence. Honestly, I think Acosta has spent too much time on the inside of a child welfare agency. He’s got far too much of that mindset and far too little of the outsider’s perspective, or that of parents who come into contact with CPS. And that’s too bad because what he goes on to say makes sense. Basically, CPS caseworker caseloads need to be reduced to levels at which they can be responsibly dealt with. Acosta points out that industry think tanks find that caseworkers typically have caseloads between 30% and 50% higher than recommended standards. So it should come as no surprise that caseworkers often fail either children or their parents. And of course what it would take to lower those caseloads to manageable levels is money that, particularly now, state legislatures aren’t willing to spend. Acosta cites a California study showing that the state would have to spend $75 million a year to bring caseloads down to standard levels. Bills that would have mandated those caseload levels died in committee. As is so often the case, the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. State legislatures shortchange child welfare agencies who in turn shortchange parents and children. Then states get sued for the blunders of overworked and underpaid caseworkers. And 70 children in Los Angeles County are dead because of it. It’s no way to run a system that’s charged with protecting children, but it’s the one we have. Acosta’s whining about the hardships visited on caseworkers won’t improve matters.