Montana: Bullying Caseworkers Into Taking Kids from Parents

February 11, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Now it’s Montana’s turn in the spotlight (Daily Inter Lake, 2/10/19).  Like many other states, Montana’s child protective agency – the Division of Child and Family Services – is a study in dysfunction.  The usual factors make all but impossible the agency’s ability to do what it’s tasked with doing – protecting children from harm.  Indeed, all too often, it’s the agency that does the harm.

That’s because caseworkers report a management culture that errs on the side of taking children from parents.

Sources allege they have been asked multiple times to remove children when they believed it was unnecessary and removal would be traumatic for the child and would violate the “least intrusive, least restrictive” rule.

“Just before I resigned we were told to remove children if there was a question of safety, then continue the investigation,” [caseworker] Sylvia said. “I believe we were told to remove children unnecessarily and we broke up families needlessly rather than make a plan to keep families together safely.

What we usually see are child protective agencies getting it wrong both ways; they seem to either take children unnecessarily or fail to take those truly at risk of harm.  But the long and well-done article makes no mention of the latter problem, only the former.  In fact, supervisors often bully caseworkers into doing so.

“We are asking different results from the same administrators,” said Matt Furlong, vice president of Montana Child Protection Alliance, an organization that provides support to families whose children have been removed from a home. “We have a culture of bullying that is happening at the top and trickling on down.”

For example, Furlong said, one employee who was recently named a division administrator for Child and Family Services in 2018 was a longtime regional administrator who oversaw the Great Falls office that has been the focus of past abuse of power allegations. Yet the former regional administrator for that office now holds one of the highest jobs in the state division.

That bullying by supervisors sometimes includes, strangely enough, refusing to allow caseworkers to talk to each other.

Anne Gowen, who worked in Montana as a child and welfare worker and supervisor for nearly three decades, claims during her time at the Polson office in Lake County, the regional administrator “forbade workers to speak to one another” and intimidated employees, yet that administrator now works at the state department in Helena…

According to Sherman, the current acting regional administrator in the Kalispell office has asked workers not to collaborate with one another on cases, a request that has caused staff morale to decline.

Of course it has.  Unsurprisingly, in office after office, there’s been a “mass exodus” of caseworkers and supervisors who choose not to work under those conditions.  The result of course is that those who stay find themselves handling several times the number of cases recommended by industry standards.

The Child and Welfare League of America recommends caseloads between 12 and 15 children per worker at one time.

But Sherman said it wasn’t uncommon for her and her Kalispell colleagues to be handling three times that many cases at any given time. Another source with knowledge from the Butte agency said her workload was always double what it should have been. Ebelt recently said the Billings staff averaged caseloads of 60 children per caseworker.

That in turn makes it all but impossible for caseworkers to do their jobs competently.

Supervisors often overrule caseworkers’ decisions despite never having had contact with the family in question.

Before a child is removed, a caseworker must reach out to management before proceeding. Regional administrators and supervisors ultimately give the final call on whether or not to remove a child. Sylvia said this is sometimes an issue of “assessing from the desk,” in which management makes a judgment call to remove a child despite having not “laid eyes” on the situation, or in some cases, having allegedly not reviewed reports from caseworkers.

“If the powers at the higher level don’t listen to those who are doing the hard work and have feet on the ground, the system does not work,” Sherman said.

What an otherwise excellent article doesn’t ask is why the tendency of the agency always runs in the direction of taking kids from non-dangerous homes rather than leaving them in dangerous ones.  That is, why is the error always toward the same end?

The answer of course is money.  The federal government doesn’t pay states a penny for leaving kids in the home, but it does pay to remove them and have them adopted.

That part of the Adoption and Safe Families Act should be rescinded.  The lure of federal largess encourages the break-up of families and the break-up of families tends strongly to harm children.  There has to be a better way to protect children than paying states to destroy their relationships with their parents.

And there is.  Agencies that say they protect kids should spend much, much more time and money providing parents and families the resources they need to care for their children more effectively and better.

Furlong believes the state needs to step up to provide guidance for families whose children have been removed from the home.

He and others claim the department often fails to offer the tools or resources necessary to help struggling parents — something that works against the division’s goal of reunification.

Those resources can include everything from parenting classes to drug and alcohol abuse programs to daycare and the like.  But, due in large part to the ASFA, CPS agencies tend to see their mission strictly in terms of whether or not to remove a child from its home.  That culture needs to change.

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