Op/Ed By Wallace Mabry
A child, returning home from school, telling his parent or guardian some lady or man came to his school today from child protective services, asking him a lot of questions about what was going on in his home, has sent more than a few parents and guardians into fits and tailspins of concern about their rights to be present when anyone questions their children.
The greater concern espoused by most parents and guardians comes about when the questions asked of the child involve drugs, drug use in the homes, domestic violence, beatings with belts, and of whether a child has been left home alone for extended periods of time.
The Monroe County Child Abuse Hotline (MCCAH), once the hub for calls to register child protective reports for Monroe County, is now merely a conduit to the State Central Register in Albany, NY, where complaints are officially registered and reports are generated and dispersed throughout New York State. MCCAH, however, continues to provide a ready staff of diligent, experienced CPS investigation caseworkers who man the telephones, answer pertinent questions relative to a caller’s concerns about children’s safety, adult protection issues, foster care, emergency shelters, food stamps, Medicaid, and a gamut of other related social services predicaments. These caseworkers, along with per diem professionals, initiate CPS investigations throughout the county during the evening hours, weekends, and holidays.
Statistical data on child protective reports investigated by MCCPS are staggering and in the neighborhood of 8,000 reported cases a year. These 8,000 reports, more or less depending on the year, cover the whole of Monroe County: the city of Rochester, Irondequoit, Webster, East Rochester, Penfield, Pittsford, Perinton, Brighton, Rush, Henrietta, Honeoye Falls, Scottsville, Chili, Wheatland, Gates, Greece, Parma, Brockport, Spencerport, Hamlin, Hilton, Mumford, and Churchville.
MCCPS consists of 15 CPS investigation teams, each led by a casework supervisor and a senior caseworker (some team have two senior caseworkers), over which are administrative caseworkers. Each team, when fully staffed, has five investigating caseworkers who basically carry the caseloads.
There are 10 CPS management teams similarly staffed with a supervisor and senior caseworker. These teams when fully staffed have six CPS management caseworkers who carry caseloads of children being monitored under the orders of Family Court judges. In addition to those caseloads, management caseworkers are responsible for investigating new CPS reports that are registered against parents or guardians where children have been returned to their families but remain under court ordered, ongoing CPS supervision.
The CPS Investigation teams and the CPS Management teams are supported by two After Hours CPS (AHCPS) teams, each working alternate weeks, each supervised by a senior caseworker over who is a casework supervisor. The AHCPS teams provide CPS investigation availability from 4 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. Monday through Friday and with on-call coverage and availability from 12:30 a.m. until 9 a.m. These two teams provide in-office coverage and availability every Saturday, Sunday, and holiday from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. with on-call availability from 7:30 p.m. until 9 a.m. In short, CPS services and response availability are available 24 hours a day, every day of the calendar year.
There is a relatively high turnover rate in caseworkers primarily because of high caseloads. New hirelings fresh from college campuses do not fit easily into the approach of fast-pace, diligent casework in areas of the city where monuments to recent killings are clearly marked with cans, flowers, and other trinkets on nearly every block. Additionally, many of these caseworkers do not feel comfortable when approaching a home in those areas, especially where a group of people are congregated and the report they have in hand is alleging intimidating circumstances.
Moreover, the intensity of the work of CPS investigations involving sex abuse, physical violence against children, and mental health issues of parents, guardians, children, and threats of violence against caseworkers that sometimes plays out during the course of an investigation give rise to constant reminders to caseworkers of the possibility and probability of risk, especially during night CPS visits.
With burdensome caseloads caseworkers are faced with assessment deadlines, maintaining updated progress notes on home visits, school visits, telephone contacts with an assortment of providers involved with families, removals which encompasses more paperwork and court appearances, closing cases within a 60-day period, keeping constant with the required yearly training, and confronted, more often than not, with the rash of new CPS reports coming in for which reports being investigated have to be put off to accommodate getting the contacts satisfied on the new reports within mandated time frames.
CPS caseworkers often sour on the work, which they feel is essential, but which many come to realize is too overwhelming for them.
There is no question some very significant things occur when CPS becomes involved in the family dynamics as a result of a CPS report of alleged abuse or maltreatment of a child.
In general, what was the normal family functioning is suddenly disrupted and derailed. The child whom the report has signaled is the maltreated or abused child hence the problem (in the parent or guardian’s perspective) that brings CPS to the home is condemned by the family for his behaviors and his proclivity to lie. Other children in the home, who have not been identified in the report as maltreated or abused, are projected, by the parent or guardian, as more compliant with family rules and structure hence prove, via deduction, that the one child is the problem. Suspicions also arise as to who made the report. When the caseworker proclaims the confidentiality of sources the family presents a resource of names as possible culprits to get a knowing reaction from the caseworker.
For the most part, families do not deny there are conflicts in the home, but there is no admission that the responsibility for the conflicts is shared by the family. What results in some families is that following the visit by the caseworker, the family secretly audio tapes conversations with the identified child, asking leading questions designed to get the child to make self-condemning statements. Needless to say, those tapes are then made available to the caseworker the next day to bolster the family’s position that the child lies and the CPS report is without merit.
Many other scenarios present themselves and in cases where a family has been the subject of several past CPS investigations there is, frequently, antagonisms left over from those past experiences with CPS and a specific caseworker. Where children have been removed from those homes and emotional ties parents normally establish with their children have been compromised by the separations, and children have formed new affiliations with foster parents, resulting in substantial losses of intimate bonding with parents, parents are sore, aching with a burning dislike and distrust of CPS that bar any supportive attempt to engage with them on any level.
Conversely, there are families who have had CPS involvements over many years who welcome the renewed involvement of CPS. These families usher caseworkers into their homes and freely share their problems and, generally, the part they play in them. They ask for all the help they can get.
A critical element in every CPS investigation is to determine the safety and health of children. To accomplish that, caseworkers must enter homes, check food supplies, and observe for drugs, drug paraphernalia, and alcohol use. Sleeping arrangements must be assessed as well as the overall and general conditions of the home environment. Everyone residing in the home becomes a principal of the investigation and each person has to be interviewed to ascertain his or her role in the family dynamic.
Oftentimes entering homes become a major issue. When a family denies the caseworker entrance into the home the caseworker, in consultation with the supervisor, must determine if the allegations of the report rise to the level where entrance into the home is a matter of utmost importance. Where entrance is determined to be important and relevant to the investigation, the supervisor may direct the caseworker to call 911 for assistance.
While the police have no legal authority to make a family open its home to a CPS investigation, the physical appearance of the police habitually persuades a recalcitrant family to allow CPS caseworkers into the home. That, however, is not always the case.
In certain cases entry orders from a Family Court judge must be issued to give CPS caseworkers and the police legal authority to enter homes for safety and health assessments.
It is important to note here that CPS investigations end as either unfounded for lack of credible evidence or indicated based on cumulative evidence and credible disclosure. It, also, must be said that unfounded reports do not necessarily support the premise that there was no risk to children in the home. It simply indicates that the risk determined did not rise to the level of an indicated finding and preventive services, in many instances, were placed in the home, before case closing, where a social worker, from a contracting agency, continues to work with the family to resolve issues and concerns that were determined during the investigation. A family’s participation with those services are recommended but often is not heeded once the case is closed.
CPS has evolved over the years where there is now an additional approach to resolving CPS reports by working with families through more aggressive coaching, FAR, that leads to neither unfounded or indicated findings. There are reported successes with that approach.
Children, if one cares to visualize and to describe them in economic terms, are our most cherished commodities to whom we have the utmost obligation to provide them with every opportunity to grow, develop in their potentials, and to blossom. Today how we tend to those obligations will pretty much determine the future of the society and of our children’s roles in it.