Child Welfare Worker: It’s ‘a facade that children are being protected’

Isaac Bailey of the Myrtle Beach Sun News is reporting here on the South Carolina Department of Social Services; that’s the state agency charged with overseeing child welfare (Sun News, 10/31/10).

His mouthpiece is Karen Munsey who’s a retired DSS worker.  Bailey describes her this way:

Karen Munsey worked as an investigator and treatment worker for Horry County Child Protection Services, an arm of the S.C. Department of Social Services.

She worked as a school psychologist in several South Carolina schools.

She’s certified in child protective service and permanency planning.

She has a BA in psychology from Coastal Carolina University, a master’s and education specialist degree from the Citadel and worked as a probation counselor with the Department of Youth Service, now known as the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice.

In short, she’s a professional in child wellbeing with education and everyday experience to match.  But her take on DSS is nothing less than scathing.  It’s not the individual caseworkers that infuriate her although some of them clearly need to be fired and replaced in her opinion.

There are “highly efficient, motivated and dedicated” DSS workers who have saved countless kids from great harm, or prevented further harm, as well as some who “are, frankly, embezzling a paycheck.”

No, the main problem is the DSS system itself.  Munsey recounts a particularly troubling case she dealt with, or attempted to.

And yet, when she came across a poor father desperately trying to save his daughter from being sexually abused during court-ordered visits after an ugly custody fight, she felt helpless.

“With all that experience, I could not maneuver that system,” she said. “Everything that we were able to accomplish was long, tedious and much harder than it ever should have been. It was all-consuming and totally draining. To this day, I cannot imagine the feelings and frustrations [that father] must have felt when all he wanted to do was ensure his child would not continue to be molested.”

In that case, a father reported that his daughter was being sexually molested at the home of his ex-wife.  A school counsellor and a psychiatrist agreed that abuse was occurring and medical evidence corroborated their opinions.  But when he sought the help of DSS, he met a stone wall.

A DSS worker said it wasn’t, that it was part of a plan by the father during a nasty custody dispute, according to court documents. Munsey said she also had to fight several other obstacles created by DSS procedures and misunderstandings.

The father refused a court order to return his daughter to her abusive home for which he was held in contempt of court, fined and made to pay attorney’s fees.  Ultimately, the case took so long to resolve that he exhausted his modest life savings in wresting his daughter from the control of DSS.  Munsey says of the girl,

The girl is in high school. Her grades have been up and down. Her father has been an integral part of trying to keep her focused, Munsey said.

She’s also had tense relationships with other girls and questionable ones with boyfriends.

She said she is thinking about Harvard, Clemson or Spellman but “hasn’t worked up to her potential since middle school,” Munsey said.

“Her saving grace is that she knows her father adores her,” she said. “But her future is really up in the air and she is at risk in all areas.”

Munsey’s solution to the ineffectiveness of DSS is to turn the entire matter of child protection over to law enforcement, saying that “child protective services can never be fixed in its present state.”

That’s the same conclusion a physician drew from a study of CPS in Utah and on which I reported not long ago.  He was the editor of the journal in which the study was published and he proclaimed that CPS has “outlived its usefulness” and urged that its authority be given to the police.

Whatever problems child protective services have, and they are legion, punting the matter to the police is surely not the solution.  True, some cases that CPS deals with are criminal in nature, like the one of sexual molestation that Karen Munsey referred to in the Sun News piece.  In those cases, the police get involved anyway.

But the vast majority of the cases don’t involve criminal wrongdoing.  They involve neglect, or more accurately, they may involve neglect or they may not; it’s up to the caseworker to decide.  And it’s precisely that type of case with which the police are neither educated nor trained to deal. 

If anyone thinks CPS caseworkers do a bad job assessing the sometimes-fine distinctions between neglect and the many difficulties of an impoverished household, just wait until the police start trying to figure it out.  It’s an open invitation to error. 

Worse, it’s an open invitation to overreaching.  The police are trained to understand human behavior in terms of right and wrong.  That’s good and necessary, of course, but it’s also a far cry from a nuanced understanding of child wellbeing.  It’s all but certain that, with responsibility for child welfare thrust on police and prosecutors, there will be far more children taken from parents, not fewer.

Worse still, criminal law is, in most instances, not competent to address the appropriateness of parental care of children.  Guilty or not guilty, fine or imprisonment just aren’t concepts that should usually be applied to parents trying to care for their children.  Sending child molesters to prison is fine; sending Dad or Mom there because they left the child home alone, failed once too often to have appropriate food or clothing, etc. is not.

As I’ve said before, just because a particular situation is bad, doesn’t mean that the alternative is better.  And overwhelmingly, children do better with their parents than they do in foster care.  But foster care is exactly where many more children would end up if the police were tasked with children’s welfare.

Let’s fix what needs fixing in CPS agencies and leave the police to do what they’re trained to do – enforce criminal law.

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