Former Child Welfare Worker: ‘This Has to Stop’

I’ve written a lot about child protective services agencies and I’ve tried to convey the notion that, while a lot of the press they get is highly critical, some of that may not be warranted.  That’s because several factors converge on CPS organizations and caseworkers.

Principally, caseworkers are overworked – they have too many cases to pay adequate attention to.  They’re underpaid, which means agencies employ caseworkers who aren’t always qualified to do the job they’re hired to do.

Third, they’re asked to make decisions about child placement that would be difficult for anyone, even under ideal circumstances.  Fourth, the consequences of a wrong decision can be dire – children can be seriously injured or killed.  And that means that, fifth, those wrong decisions get front-page headline treatment by the press, which inevitably makes CPS as a whole look worse than it actually is.

In short, the chances of CPS agencies becoming the whipping boy for much of our societal angst about family breakdown and child well-being are good.

That said, there are many, many cases in which state child welfare agencies simply have no defense for their actions.  I reported recently on a group home that’s part of the foster care system in Texas that’s seen five children killed in eight years.  Undeterred, CPS caseworkers continued placing children in that home and agency oversight failed to close it, until recently.  Apparently the fifth killing of a child was what it took to get state authorities to finally say “This has to stop.”

Coincidentally, that’s exactly what former Nebraska child welfare worker Tawnie Stewart says in this article (North Platte Telegraph, 2/13/11).  She levels serious allegations at the Child Protective Services agency at which she was a caseworker and at the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Among others, she says she was told to lie under oath in court.  Her broader allegations are that the agency consciously worked to take children from parents in favor of foster care.

According to Stewart, the process of separating children from their parents begins with what appears to be little fanfare.  CPS caseworkers ask for the parent’s “cooperation.”  If cooperation isn’t given, they’re told, criminal charges will be filed.  Here’s how Stewart describes it in the case of May Lynn Branson:

Child Protective Services came into Branson’s life after a bruise was spotted on one of the children’s legs at school. Investigators showed up at her doorstep and Branson, who has a mental disability, agreed to cooperate with requests to temporarily hand over her children.

Stewart said this is a standard practice.

“That’s where they get you,” said Stewart. “That’s their tactics. They are told to tell parents like May Lynn that if they cooperate, things will go better, if not they will file criminal charges. Most people would be afraid at that point and the voluntary cooperation sounds easier, but in fact, it’s better if you force them to pursue criminal actions. That way, they at least have to prove what they are saying. Otherwise, they can do what they want.”

Branson admits that she had to change some things about her lifestyle and how she was caring for her child.  But Stewart is adamant that May Lynn Branson is not a parent who deserves to lose her child.  Once her daughters were placed in foster care though, it’s been hard to get them back again, despite the changes she’s made.  For example,

Branson was given a case plan to follow, but each time the goals of the case plan were met, the goals were changed, according to copies of the case plans. Branson has dealt with 10 different caseworkers over the last several months. 

And when one caseworker finally acknowledged that “fair progress is being made to alleviate the causes of out-of-home placement,” she turned around and, in the very next paragraph, recommended that the children be adopted.

Whatever May Lynn Branson goes through with the CPS system, the children aren’t immune either.  During their time in foster care, they’ve lived in different cities with different parents and apparently apart from each other.

That of course raises the issue of whether the “cure” is better or worse than the “disease.”  Are the children truly better off living with strangers, however well-meaning, in a state of more or less constant upheaval than they would have been if they’d lived with their mother for all her shortcomings?

Tawnie Stewart for one has no doubt about the answer in Branson’s case.

But beyond that individual case, it’s a question we should ask in all cases.  And when we do, we should keep in mind one important principle: the fact that there’s a problem doesn’t necessarily mean that our “solution” is better.  That is, just because parents aren’t doing a good job of raising children doesn’t mean foster parents will do it better.

Given the fact that, as a general rule, children do better in parental care than anywhere else, CPS agencies should work by one primary rule: take children from parents only if it’s clearly necessary and, if they’re taken, do everything you can to reconnect them as soon as possible.  Many such agencies have already adopted that rule.

But in Stewart’s description, CPS agencies in Nebraska do exactly the opposite; they bend heaven and earth to separate children from parents and make it as hard as possible to reverse the process.

The article linked to is one-sided; it tells Tawnie Stewart’s side of things and illustrates it with the case of May Lynn Branson and her children.  We don’t hear from Nebraska CPS workers, but that’s not because the reporters didn’t ask them for comment.

The Telegraph contacted the Health and Human Services Communications and Legislative Services Director Kathie Osterman for a response to Branson’s case. Osterman was provided with these same details and after saying HHS would respond to what they could, did not meet a one-week deadline to provide a response.

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