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The Problem with Social Services- part II

Mother holds Child

Mother holds Child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my post yesterday, I outlined some of the problems with the implementation of Social Services.  Today, I will be discussing support for CPS and social workers in general.  You can see from what you read already that in many ways workers are bound to the law of their area for decision-making purposes.  I am certain that every CPS worker you will ever speak to has a child, or several children, that they wish they could have removed because they could see the train wreck coming.  Similarly, they will also have a child they were sad to remove, and parents that surprise them with their resiliency, cruelty, etc.  Just when you think you’ve seen it all, they have seen more.  Yet, how much do we hear about CPS workers, or any social workers, for that matter getting recognition for the difficult work they do?  In many ways CPS workers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t in most situations.  The cases that get highlighted are the extremes where children were taken from the home with little apparent reason or children that were not removed from the home who died.  There are almost always people who are upset with the decisions of the workers- people who feel neglect or abuse is occurring get angry because they  want CPS workers to be more proactive, and people who feel the parents are doing the best they can, or have a right to parent however they see fit even if it borders on abuse want CPS workers to mind their own business.   I do not mean to make any excuses over children improperly removed or children who are left in the home who suffer further abuse or fatality but I do want to say that with the high caseloads expected of caseworkers, the low-level of support and the high burnout rate of workers, mistakes are bound to happen.  While I’m mentioning this, another potential area for legal changes could be mandating a particular number of children on a workers caseload just like school districts have a student; teacher ratio.

In addition to having incredibly difficult jobs and little public understanding of their role, CPS workers do this with very little financial support.  While I was not working as a CPS worker, after earning my master’s degree and going to work in a treatment facility for abused children, I got very little compensation.  By comparison, my sister, who was getting her undergraduate degree in computer science, made more at her internship than I was making at my job.  I left that job five years later, with many tears on my part because I did love my work and I was in a supportive atmosphere.  The final straw for me was after I had two children and my husband and I were in a Home Depot one day where two employees happened to be comparing paychecks while we were checking out.  One of them mentioned how much money he was making an hour and I realized I was making only a dollar an hour more than he was.  Even though my husband works hard, we do need my paycheck and I realized I needed to earn more money to justify being away from my babies.   The average income of a full-time CPS worker is about 30-35,000 which is in the high range for social workers outside of private practice.  If you compare what social workers and teachers do, we can make many of the same arguments about being expected to purchase materials in excess of what is provided and work hours outside of paid time, etc.  Yet teachers have the support of the public.  When’s the last time you saw a discount for social workers to get into a museum or social worker night at the pizza place?  I’m guessing never.

My point is not to whine, my point is to say that one thing we could really use is some marketing.  Right now the cons of getting involved in child welfare in general outweigh the pros for anyone who relies on their paycheck to put food on the table.  If I had a dollar for every time in my master’s program I was told we were not in social work for the money, I would be rich.  Bottom line, we need to support the intent of social services- to protect children and prevent child abuse, to advertise the opportunities that social services can help struggling parents with, and to better compensate and support our workers so we attract the best of the best.  As part of a larger marketing campaign, we need to educate people about the current role of social services (while taking responsibility for past mistakes), focusing on people of color, immigrants and the very poor as in the past the United States has improperly targeted these groups and there is, in my opinion understandably, a generation of people who carry the fear that their children will be taken should they seek assistance or raise a question to anyone about how to be a better parent.

While you may believe that focusing on CPS is missing the point of supporting child abuse prevention, I believe it is very pertinent to the discussion.  According to PBS’s Frontline website, only about 60% of the cases referred to CPS are actually found to need further investigation, however, even without finding a child has been abused, often the local Department of Social Services can offer families help in signing up for programs that include child care, food and medical assistance, and parenting classes.   A 2002 report for the Urban Institute says that about $20 million was spent that year on child welfare services.  Compare this to the Humane Society’s $160 million budget to protect animals.  I have nothing against animals (I’m actually a vegetarian) but seriously?  This is shameful!  People will give money all day long to protect animals, but when it comes to children, for the most part, people do not want to hear about it, talk about it or think about it.  I think too, we assume services are out there and available when really, they are not as available as we would like to think.  De-stigmatizing aid and  increasing wages to hire the best workers would dramatically change the impact of Social Services in preventing child abuse.

Tomorrow, I will highlight what I believe to be the cornerstones of a good child abuse prevention program.

April 18, 2012 Posted by | social services | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Problem with Social Services- from a Social Worker’s Perspective- part I

Length of stay in U.S. foster care

Length of stay in U.S. foster care (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

I am writing this post in response to another post by Daniellesstory (I will repost so you can see it if you missed it) asking how it is that we might mobilize to make our children safer. Part of her concern was their safety when they have been entrusted to the care of social services.  I would highly recommend you read her post about her experiences with her adopted daughter and social services and her questions about how to enact meaningful legislation that would really help children rather than serve as “nice words” saying we support a safe and healthy childhood for every child.  I realize that her blog is not asking solely about Social Services but since most of the children that I see in my practice have had some interaction with social services, this is actually an issue that comes up a lot and I will focus on them for this post.  If you are interested in finding out more about my own work history that informs my thoughts here, you can read my longer professional biography on the website www.attachmentdisordermaryland.com- you will find me in the “about us” section.  While there are many aspects of Social Services we could talk about, in this post, I am going to stick with ways to change the ability of Social Services to protect children.

The issues, as I see them, are three-fold, implementation, support and funding.  I will speak to implementation first.  Right now, the individual states are in charge of the Departments of Social Services (they are not even all called that- but they all serve the same function) and within the states, sometimes Social Services are run by the counties and cities within the state.  Each area decides for example, the level of education required to call someone a social worker and that can very within a state.  In my state, Maryland, the county I live in has Child Protective Service (CPS) workers that are all Master’s level educated, while in Baltimore City, the Master’s level educated people are not in the field, they are supervising the workers in the field who may have an AA or undergraduate degree.  It’s easy to see how a CPS worker with an AA would have a different skill set for helping, coping with burnout etc. from a Master’s level worker.

Additionally, different states have different laws about the implementation of protective services.  In Maryland we have a law that states that Social Services must respond to an abuse report where a child may be in danger within 24 hours.  That law and a law requiring workers to see any child who is a ward of the state routinely was the result of a child death while the child was in care and a subsequent re-haul of the system (via the Maryland state legislature).  We also have a “mandatory reporter” law where people that routinely work with children, such as people in the school system, health care workers, social workers, etc.  are required to report any suspicion of abuse.  Other states have other laws governing (or not governing) social services.  Consequently, when we talk about protecting children, we really must look to the laws of the state.  In the daniellesstory post, the author suggested a lawsuit.  I would suggest laws are easier changed by speaking to politicians about actual measures they can take.  It is not my intent at all to minimize or excuse the awful things that happened to that author’s daughter or her daughter’s biological brother, only to better explain where the gaps and disservice comes from.

The question I think I get most often from people first bringing in their traumatized children to me has to do with why social workers do or do not remove children from a home.  Here’s the deal… when we have a legal system that presumes innocence until guilt is proven, we create a reactive rather than proactive society.  This means that social workers cannot just waltz into a home and remove children unless they have concerns that the child is in iminate harm of abuse.  Each state has different laws about what constitutes abuse or neglect.  In my state abuse means that a person left a physical mark on a child, used a child in a sexually exploitative manner, neglected to meet a child’s basic needs for health and welfare by not dressing them appropriately for the weather, neglecting to follow through on medical recommendations involving health issues, etc.  Also included in my state’s laws related to abuse is mental harm- wherein a child has been emotionally abused by a parent, however, I do not know of a single case where a child has been removed for this alone.  To break this down into the parts people seem most interested in, no, you cannot remove a child solely because they have drug addicted or alcoholic parent, or their house is messy all the time (unless the mess creates certain harm to the child), or because you think they are overly punative and mean.  Children can be removed if the parents are drug abusers who have taken the child in the car while they were driving drunk or high, the mess in the house constitutes danger to a child, or the punative, mean nature of the parent translates into actual physical harm to the child.  Because of the reactive nature of our system, children cannot be removed before harm is done.  Child Protective Service (CPS) workers are trained to work to keep children in the home since we do not have a large pool of willing foster parents who are excited to take children into their home.  Kinship care (where a child is placed with a relative) is the next step, and foster care is the last resort  a worker looks for.  Again, implementation of these decisions over whether a child stays or does not stay will have a lot to do with the training and support given to people in local departments and can vary widely.

In 1997, Congress enacted a law making a timeline where social services are required to work toward reunification of the child with their parent, except for some extreme cases, for 15 months.  After those months are completed, they are to switch to permanency planning where they work toward the termination of parental rights so a child is free to be adopted.  This law is in effect to avoid having children lingering in care for years and years while the system waits for a child’s parent to get it together.  The belief behind the law is that children are best served by being in a family.  Because this is a federal law- it is the same in every state.

As I mentioned before, not all states have the same laws and you definitely want to look up the laws in your individual state.  The laws directly impact the way services are implemented so if you are looking for a different implementation of services, I would suggest you look at the wording of the laws about what constitutes abuse, who is a mandatory reporter and what they would be required to report, and look at the timeline for services for a child outside of the federal timeline like how quickly a child needs to be seen etc.  I would not try to change the law to be pro-active (removing children before harm is done), not only is it asking to change a fundamental principle of our legal system, it is a slippery slope.   Take, for example, when people say you should need a license to be a parent.  Who would implement that law?  Who would decide who gets to be a parent?  What would the requirements be? When you look at it that way, you can see this is not a road we want to go down.  We can’t even agree if a grown woman should be allowed to have birth control covered by her insurance for goodness sake- how in the world would anyone begin to decide who would get the parenting license, etc?  I would also point out that I have met many parents who are “licensed”- they are foster parents and while they are required to take classes and pass basic requirements, they continue to have the same spectrum of parenting ability as the general population- anywhere from abhorrent to fantastic.  To conclude this portion, I would say that the laws generally protect parents to raise children in the ways we see fit with limits set for the minimum standard of care and the maximum amount of physical force and exploitation.  Within those parameters, we are all free to “mess up” our children as much as we would like and the system does not get to take them.

Tomorrow, I am going to post about two other issues, support for Social Workers and others who aid in protecting children and barriers to prevention.

What do you think would be a good law to implement to protect children?

April 17, 2012 Posted by | social services | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

   

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