Failure to Protect
homelogan marrcaseworker fileschild policydiscussion
shaleigh anthony
photo of anthony

Twenty-three-year-old Shaleigh is just starting her job as a caseworker in Maine's Department of Human Services when FRONTLINE begins filming "The Caseworker Files." The film follows her as she tackles her first case involving allegations of serious neglect, which results in the removal of a 2-year-old boy from his mother. In this interview, Shaleigh talks about how she copes with difficult cases like these, and how it feels to have so much power over families' lives.

Even though this little girl wants to see her mom, maybe she won¼t be able to see her mom ä . You just have to learn to accept that you can't make everybody happy.

[What do you think are the most important things to do, or to remember, as a caseworker?}

I think to take care of ourselves and to be totally unbiased in the job would be the most important things.

[Why is that?]

Because if we don't take care of ourselves we won't be effective caseworkers. If we get totally emotionally involved, then it will affect our job and how we deal with the clients. And to be unbiased, everybody has values and everybody has their own personal experiences and you kind of have to forget those to deal with the different types of people.

[Can you put biases aside?]

I hope so. I've lived like a candy-coated life, so it's going to be hard for me to go in and see the things that I'll be seeing. And I just never was exposed to anything like that before, so I think it will take practice.

(What kind of things)

I think a lot of violence in homes and chronic substance abuse, things of that nature.

[Do you feel like your life hasn't prepared you for the job?]

Yeah. Sometimes I look at the families that I'm dealing with and I just can't believe that people are in these positions because I've led such a candy coated life, but it's really making me realize that there are people out there that need a lot more help than I could ever imagine in my own life.

[What are some of the biggest shocks for you since you've started working?]

I think the most shocking for me is the conditions of a lot of the homes that we go in. I really don't know how to describe it. It's amazing that people can live in conditions like that it seems like they don't have a lot of self-respect. That's from my point of view from the outside but probably they do but I think that bothers me, but it's just that if you are below the poverty line, I think you can still keep a house clean. But from my experience it seems like some people give up and it's hard for me to say, "Why are you giving up?" It's hard for me to understand why somebody would give up.

[What's been hard for you?]

I still have a hard time if I need to come right out and say, "This needs to be improved," because a lot of people don't realize the situations they are in are a threat to their children so I have a hard time trying to point out things that needs to be improved to families. I try to go a nice way about it but sometimes you have to come right out and lay down the law I guess.

[Does the outside world misunderstand what you do?]

I think so. I don't think a lot of people realize that we do have to get police to come to these homes. They don't realize the issues of what we have to deal with. I think a lot of people think that, oh, that person spanked the kids. DHS is involved. It's a lot more severe than that. It's almost a blessing if you just get a plain spanking case which you never do. There's lots of sexual abuse, there's a lot of violence. And people don't realize that we put our lives at risk every time we go knock on the door of these complete strangers.

Probably about forty, fifty percent of my cases I bring police officers with me just for my own safety. Even after you build a rapport with these people you know about their violent criminal past so you still don't feel comfortable by yourself. I may very cautious, but a lot of case workers are.

[What's the most enjoyable part of the job?]

I think just knowing that I am making in difference in people's lives. Because I've had a lot of my clients come up and say "Thank you, you've really helped me. You made me understand myself better," and when somebody says that, I actually think that what I'm doing is worth it at times.

And seeing some children that unfortunately had to be removed from home for a short period of time, just seeing them be in a safe place and not even realize that all this has been going on and that they have barely been harmed or have any emotional reaction to what has happened. I know it's terrible to say, but I like it if the kids don't realize what's going on because then they don't have bad reactions.

[Have you dealt with any children who have had bad reactions?]

I have one little girl right now who just wants to see her mom and she's really upset and they're having a hard time with her. But she doesn't realize that how she was born and how she was raised, things that she was exposed to aren't good for children. Like her life would have been in danger two or three times in the past week, and she just wants to see her mom. And it's really hard to sit down and explain to her that right now we're trying to help your mom to make you safe but she's almost parentified, wanting to confirm that her mom is safe and she wants to keep her safe. It's sad to see little girls being adults.

[How you deal with that?]

I really haven't distanced myself. I think about that little girl all the time and I think about her family. I'm really worried about her mom, but when it comes down to it, you need to go home and basically try to clean out your brain, but it's always in the back of your head. So I really don't think there's any possible way that you can separate yourself from work.

[Are there times when it is overwhelming?]

There are, and a lot of times I have to see it as my job. I can't take what I do personally because I know if somebody like myself come into my own life, I'd be a wreck. So I have to keep thinking that that's them, and I'm me, and that I'm doing the best that I can and I'm trying to make things safe for him. I don't know how to describe it, but in a way it's my job. I'm not involved with these people other than my job so I guess I just keep it on that level.

[Knowing that you're trying to help.]

Yeah, exactly. You're helping them, even if they don't realize it. What you are doing is in their best interest and the children's best interest.

[Are there moments where doubt creeps in?]

If it comes down to filing a petition and asking for custody of the children, and I'm writing up that affidavit or when I'm doing the paperwork for the court, a lot of times I'll question myself because I want to prevent that. I don't want that to happen. But while I'm working, while I'm out doing the interviews, I almost always feel like what I'm doing is right. It's just that moment when I'm actually getting ready to do the petition and to get the child that I question myself a lot.

[Why at that moment?]

I'm not really sure. I think it's just that it's really come down, not to the end but it's really come down to the big decision.

[How many removals have you participated in?]

Three.

[How did they go? Were they difficult for you?]

No, they weren't at all. I've been so lucky. I suppose you could call it lucky. We call it lucky, anyway, in our little social worker thing, but I have not actually had to go to a house and remove a child and place him in a foster home on my own case load. I've accompanied coworkers doing that, but I've never had to. Mine have basically been I go to the court and get the papers signed and call the parties and serve them with their papers and tell them the change in custody basically.

It hasn't been that emotional for me, because I know that I've been doing the right thing and I've been very secure in my decision and I didn't actually have to go physically and remove a child and to me that's the most emotional that any case worker will have to go through.

[Will you get one of those in the future?]

It's almost guaranteed.

[How you prepare for that?]

I don't think you ever can. You just dive into the situation and do what you can at that time.

[How do you feel about the parents you work with?]

I'm actually surprised because a lot of the parents are likeable. I pictured me going into these homes of quote "child abusers" and I pictured them being almost monsters and I wouldn't be able to look at them, but a lot of my clients I've actually liked and they're friendly and you have to keep remembering that they are humans and people make mistakes.

[How do you determine the best interest of the child?]

It all depends on the case by case situation because a lot of times the kids do go back home, which is what we really hope for, and a lot of times they go on to be adopted, which is great. I think the best interests of the child kind of stem down to every child deserves to be safe, and every child deserves to not have to witness violence and every child deserves a meal three times a day and just the basic things that a lot of us take for granted a lot of these children don't get. So, to me the best interest of the child is basically meeting their needs and letting a child be a child instead of [an] adult...

[Are you scared of making mistakes and getting too attached?]

Yeah, I think so. I've made so many mistakes, but it's all a learning experience. And the mistakes that you do make aren't as scary as what I thought they would be. I thought that I'd be making mistakes in people's lives, but a lot of the mistakes aren't like that. Because you don't make those decisions on your own so there isn't room for screwing up, I guess.

I do get attached to the children. I like to just go visit with children whereas with parents I'd rather call them on the phone sometimes. But I don't think it's a bad thing because I think it almost helps you as a person to make sure you know what you're doing is right for these children.

I think if you don't get attached it's just, "oh another kid." You know what I mean? You'll just be thinking wow this is the storybook and this is how it's supposed to go, but if you get to know a child, then like that seven year-old little girl I was talking about, if you get to know her then you know how much her mother means to her, and to me, mom's going through a lot of rough stuff and I think, I mean as a case worker even though I couldn't make this decision, I'd give this mother a lot more longer time to straighten herself out because of the attachments this child has with her mom. If I didn't take the time to get to know this child then I would have been like, "she's never going to change," basically.

[Do you still believe in the happy ending?]

Yeah, I think there are happy endings. A lot of the times, they both straighten out and the kids are safe. Happy endings are never going to be a storybook ending because a parent may make all the necessary changes but there's always going to be problems. You have to realize that there are going to be problems.

[Are you learning to toughen up?]

I really don't know if it's a toughening up. I still care about these people as much as I would have right out of training, but you got to learn that some people can't make changes, and that some people can. I think it's more of a learning process just to know that you really can't make that difference in everybody's life. It's more just accepting that you can't change everybody and you can't make everybody safe. You can't do what everybody wants you to do. I think that's what it comes down to for me, is that I just have to accept that even though this little girl wants to see her mom, maybe she won't be able to see her mom unless she makes the changes. You just have to learn to accept that you can't make everybody happy.

[Is that hard?]

It's very hard. Because in a way you want to remove yourself from your work but you have to keep reminding yourself that these are families and these are real people you're dealing with.

[Do you find that you've had to develop an ability to not be nice?]

I'm one of those people that do just smile a lot and I do find myself wanting to be nice with people but you have to realize that a lot of times you do have to put your foot down and just tell them what you have found and what you think should be done. So it has been a conflict with me and my personality with this job. But you learn how to deal with it I guess. I think I have changed with how I can present myself to people and how just my whole attitude basically when I deal with my clients. We're human so we want people to like us, and telling people, "Yes, we found that you abused your child," is really hard on you, so you have to remember it's work and people aren't going to like you.

[Have people screamed at you?]

Oh yeah. I've gotten swore at and called so many names. It's unbelievable. I realize that these are human beings that are swearing at me and they must be really frustrated to swear at me, but in order to not take it personally it's almost like you laugh at it. Because I know they must be so frustrated and it's really upsetting for me to that I have actually caused this much frustration in a person, but you have to realize it's your job and you're a caseworker. He's not attacking you personally.

[Is what you're doing right, then?]

Yes.

[Even when it doesn't feel good?]

Yeah, I think again it just concerns children's safety. I can be called many names and I don't think it will phase me as long as I know that I'm keeping the kids safe.

[How do you feel about the power you've been granted in this position?]

A lot of times I forget how the public does view us. Because I'm just going into a house, a happy little social worker, making sure the kids are safe and I've had a couple clients say, "I know you have the power to do that." And I just kind of look at them and it hits [me] again that I do have this power, but it's not anything that I think about all the time. I often forget that I do have the ability--not me personally, but between me and my supervisor and the judges and things, we do have the power to remove children. But it's not something that I think about unless a client or a coworker points it out to me. Like I subpoenaed somebody yesterday. I didn't think I could do that. It's kind of scary.

[How do the parents you work with view you?]

Parents that are around my age are more than willing to talk to me and they are very receptive to my intervention, but if I get a grandmother that's raising her children that we've received a report on, a lot of times she just kind of looks at me and says, "Yeah, you don't know what you're doing." I've had a lot of parents say that I'm a nice person, they're glad that I came, and I've had a lot of parents say, "I hope to never see you again."

[Did you expect that?]

Oh, yeah. Doesn't surprise me. I wouldn't want to see me again.

[Why not?]

Because I'm invading somebody's personal life, it's not like I'm coming in for tea. We're actually so intrusive. We go in, ask to see children's rooms, if there's possible substance abuse, could you please open up your fridge? We need to inspect the house basically. I wouldn't want somebody coming in, checking out my home.

If there's small children and there is concerns of physical abuse a lot of times we ask that they change a diaper in front of us, and no matter how many times you say it to a mother, and no matter how many times you ask it, parents automatically say, "They think I'm beating my kids." It's very intrusive to look at a baby's body and look for bruises.

[Is that the hardest part?]

I think so. Because that is very personal, but it's necessary.

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