Juvenile Court Judge on Child Protective Services: Bad Social Work Followed by More Bad Social Work

November 8, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

The deeds and misdeeds of child welfare agencies are always big news. I write about them frequently, and I’ve often taken the stance that, for all their shortcomings – and they are many – we should take care in criticizing caseworkers. That’s because they have one of the most difficult and least rewarding jobs in the world. They don’t get paid very well and often their training is poor. We give them something like double the recommended case load, send them into the homes of strangers and tell them to decide whether to remove a child from its only home or place it in foster care.

If all that’s not enough, the consequences of making the wrong call are things like the child is killed or abused. That’s a possibility for any child, whether it’s taken from its parents or whether it’s not. The decision to take a child from its parents is often hideously traumatic for the child and the parents. Then there’s the press that’s ever-eager for a nice juicy case of child abuse and bureaucratic incompetence to report on.

Sound like a job you’d want? I didn’t think so.

None of that of course exempts CPS workers and agencies from criticism. Far from it. Indeed, confidentiality laws that keep much of what child protective workers do out of the public’s view mean that we know far too little about what really goes on behind the closed doors of the people the public pays to keep our children from harm. On those rare occasions when something like the full truth comes to light, as in the case of the Richmond, Virginia agency, it always seems to be worse than we imagined. That the Richmond agency literally couldn’t locate some 30% of its active files defies my ability to express outrage.

So it’s good to get an insider’s view. Los Angeles County Juvenile Court Judge David Nash isn’t part of the Department of Children and Family Services that decides whether to take kids from parents, but he sees their actions in his courtroom every day. Understandably, he’s got some things to say about them that are less than flattering (Los Angeles Times, 6/23/13).

In his view, too many social workers at the county’s Department of Children and Family Services are failing to exercise smart judgment about when to leave children with their parents and when to remove them from their homes. Instead, he says, often out of fear of being second-guessed, social workers remove children, disrupting young lives and burdening the courts.

That enrages Nash. Social workers who remove children to protect themselves from criticism, he said, are guilty of "following up bad social work with more bad social work…. That is unacceptable."

That’s putting it mildly. What Nash describes, we see often. Two years ago I reported on a case in Houston in which a caseworker took children from a couple who were in no way abusive or neglectful of the kids. Their sole crime was to run into temporary financial difficulties that saw them living in a mini-warehouse. The Houston Chronicle showed photos of the place, a spacious (10,000 square feet), well-appointed dwelling that was climate controlled. There was a living room, a kitchen and large bedrooms. The kids had computers. What the place didn’t have was running water, but that was but a few steps away across the warehouse complex’s driveway.

As I pointed out at the time, although the caseworker seemed unaware of the fact, people have lived without indoor plumbing for a lot longer than they’ve lived with it. But the absence of running water so shocked the caseworker that she took the kids away from loving parents and into foster care. Her rationale? Her supervisor would have gotten upset if she’d left them with their parents.

That’s exactly the type of thing Nash is talking about. Caseworkers often seem to care more about how their actions will look than about whether the children are in any danger. CYA is the rule at CPS.

And in a way, you can understand. What gets caseworkers in trouble is failing to appear “proactive.” That looks like negligence, whereas intervening in a family’s life looks like taking action to protect children. At least that’s how it appears to the press. Despite the fact that foster care is, on average, significantly more dangerous to children than parental care, the news media have a tendency to complain about child protective services when it leaves a child with a parent and the child is injured. When CPS takes a child out of the home and it’s injured by a foster parent, that’s seldom seen as the fault of the agency but of the foster parent.

No one wants to lose a job, so caseworkers for child protective services do what we’d expect; they stay close to the line that’s least likely to get them into trouble or draw unwanted press attention. The fact that children’s lives and well-being often hang in the balance is one of the facts of life in a society that encourages divorce and single-parenthood, and wouldn’t dream of teaching folks the basics of sound parenting starting at an early age.

And, speaking of unacceptably high caseloads, try this on for size:

The source of Nash’s discontent is the swelling caseload that his judges are being asked to carry — a burden that reduces the amount of time they have to focus on the needs of the children whose futures they decide. As of today, he said, each of the court’s 20 full-time judges handles roughly 1,350 cases at any given time, well above the recommended maximum. Often, matters of grave consequence must be heard and decided in minutes, even when they call for careful deliberation.

Not only does that mean that there are an astonishing 27,000 juvenile cases pending at any given time, it renders moot any question of judges actually making considered decisions in any of them. That’s why Nash says, "It’s just very difficult to do the job in a meaningful way."

You bet it is.

Then there’s the fact that child protective services responders aren’t trained very well, as I mentioned before.

One area where [county agency director Philip] Browning and Nash agree is that the department needs to do a better job training its employees, especially those who respond to complaints of abuse. A recent audit found "a general lack of skill on the part of ER [emergency response] workers" and called on the department to improve its systems for hiring and training those employees.

The report cited example after example of social workers who failed to ask basic questions or conduct even rudimentary investigations. One social worker spent weeks looking for a little boy at the wrong address because the worker neglected to contact law enforcement. In another, the worker failed to interview a sibling who had reported the abuse. The result: two children died.

Browning conceded that the department "hasn’t done a very good job" in that area, and Nash couldn’t agree more: "People need to know how to assess safety and risk.… It comes down to training, and it comes down to supervision."

The “takeaway” seems to be that poorly trained caseworkers for child protective services have far more cases than they can handle, so they tend to err on the side of taking children from their parents. That means the kids and parents go to a court whose judge has an impossible caseload. Chances are the parents can’t afford a lawyer and the county’s lawyer has far too many cases to deal intelligently with and likely has a single goal – “win” the case. That means promoting the CPS decision regardless of the facts which, in any event, the lawyer hasn’t had enough time to digest. In short, no one in the system has the training or the time to truly look at parents, children and their circumstances either individually or in much depth.

To belabor an already overused metaphor, it’s kind of a perfect storm of overwork, undertraining and underpayment. At no point is there anyone who can just take a hard look at a family and get it right.

That’s pretty much the reality of everything to do with children once they come under the gaze of child protective services. It’s not a pretty picture.

Thanks to Tim for the heads-up.

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