Armed with a bachelor's degree and five weeks of training, caseworker Shaleigh Anthony faces her first case involving allegations of serious neglect: Beth, the mother of 2-year-old Mark, is accused of keeping him in a dangerous house with a potentially unsafe adult relative. Beth and Mark live in a run-down farmhouse in rural Maine with several adults, including Mark's grandmother, Leiann, and his step-grandfather, Roy, who once pled guilty to assaulting a teenage girl.
Roy's history concerns Shaleigh, but more pressing, she feels, is the condition of the house. It looks to her like a cluttered, filthy firetrap. "The house that they were living in was deplorable living conditions," she says. "I brought the fire marshal out and he said if there was one spark in the house, the whole house is going up within a half hour."
Shaleigh brings up these issues with Beth and her family and is not satisfied with their response. She doesn't think Beth is taking her concerns seriously. Leiann, Mark's grandmother, contends that they were never given a chance to address the problems with the house because they were never given specific recommendations. "I've explained time and time again [that] we don't have the money," she says. "We can do basic cleaning, but until we know what repairs they want done, we can't actually say, 'Well, we want a loan for X amount of dollars so that we can do this and this.'"
Despite her misgivings, Shaleigh isn't convinced that there are grounds to remove Mark from the home. Her supervisor, Melissa, isn't so sure, however. She calls Assistant Attorney General Geoff Goodwin to ask if the evidence amounts to "serious risk of immediate" harm to Mark, the standard used by the court to determine if a DHS petition to remove a child should be granted. Goodwin thinks the evidence is convincing and Shaleigh files the petition. She is surprised by how quickly Melissa and Goodwin decide to move. "I just didn't expect him to be like, 'Go get him,'" Shaleigh says. "I guess I didn't realize the severity of the situation."
That night, a sheriff comes to the house to inform Beth and her family that they will be losing Mark. Despite the family's pleas, a judge upholds DHS's decision to remove Mark from his mother and place him in the custody of a relative. Beth is given a year to improve her situation sufficiently to convince the state to return her son.
Eight months later, in February 2003, her time is running out.
Ten-year-old Matthew is brought in to DHS after a report that his father, Keith, has physically abused him. (A friend of Keith's, with whom he and Matthew had been staying for the weekend, called the department and said that she had seen Keith punch Matthew, choke him with his shirt, and throw him against a wall.) Caseworker David Greeley investigates the claims and determines that Matthew must be removed for his own safety.
Keith has a history of alcohol abuse and David has been trying for months to get him to stop drinking and improve his parenting. David has long suspected that Keith physically abused Matthew, but has been unable to substantiate his suspicions until the friend's report corroborates them.
Despite the difficulties in their relationship, the separation from his father is deeply traumatizing for Matthew. Keith and Matthew's mother split up when he was a baby, and Keith is the only parent Matthew has known for seven of his 10 years. When he is brought into the Bangor DHS office on the evening of his removal, Matthew is sobbing, distraught, and inconsolable. He is so upset that he has to be taken to a hospital for evaluation. For David, seeing Matthew like this is excruciating. "That's the heartbreak. This boy is in there with a broken heart, crying for his dad, and it's not his fault," says David. "It's that his father, primarily for the reasons of substance abuse, is not able to be consistent. It's not a smooth system and it does traumatize everybody."
Matthew is held for weeks in a locked hospital ward, too despondent to be moved. Keith is not allowed to see him, and after three weeks, David tells him that he may be prohibited from contacting Matthew by phone because the boy finds the conversations too upsetting.
Determined to get Matthew back, Keith insists that Matthew's emotional difficulties in the hospital are due to the trauma of removal, not to any abusive behavior on his part. In a case management meeting with his lawyer, David, and an assistant attorney general, he denies that he ever physically hurt Matthew. "Matthew and I, we get along good," Keith says. "We have no history of violence in the home." He concedes that he is an alcoholic, however, and agrees to attend counseling and other services to get help. He continues to insist that his goal is to regain custody of Matthew.
After two months, DHS drops the accusation of physical abuse. In return, Keith stops contesting Matthew's removal, and admits before a judge that he is an alcoholic. He is given a year to prove to DHS that he can provide a safe home for Matthew.
As of February 2003, Matthew is in a foster home and sees his father once a week. Both he and Keith seem to be doing better, and a reunification is still possible.
When single mother Shirley Mitchell is accused of failing to recognize a danger posed to three sons by an ex-boyfriend, the case is assigned to caseworker Robin Whitney.
Shirley's daughter has already been taken into DHS custody after she alleged that the boyfriend, Dan, had sexually molested her. Shirley does not believe her daughter's sometimes inconsistent stories about the alleged abuse, but she breaks off her relationship with Dan at DHS's insistence. Robin remains concerned, however, that Shirley's three sons -- Derek, Patrick, and Dustin -- are still at risk. Until Shirley acknowledges that the abuse of her daughter occured, she says, Shirley is putting their emotional health in jeopardy.
Dan denies the daughter's allegations, but Patrick has said that he saw Dan sneak into her room at night. Shirley's refusal to believe Patrick's accounts of Dan's behavior, Robin thinks, is emotionally damaging to him because it invalidates his perception of reality. Consulting with her supervisor, Cindy Post, Robin decides that unless Shirley acknowledges the alleged abuse, DHS will ask a judge to remove the boys.
Shirley is angry at Robin and at DHS. She feels like she has done everything they've asked of her -- cut off her relationship with her boyfriend, participated in family counseling and intensive one-on-one therapy with a counselor who Shirley knows could ultimately testify against her in a custody hearing. And yet the department still threatens to remove her boys unless she admits to something she doesn't believe: that her boyfriend molested her daughter.
"You have the power to take my kids if I don't say what you wanna hear," she says to Robin. "How can I say what I don't know?"
While Shirley continues with her therapy and her therapist reports on her progress to Robin, the behavior of Shirley's son Patrick begins to deteriorate. More and more, he is angry, defiant, and aggressive. Shirley tells Robin and Cindy that Patrick's problems stem from beatings he received from his biological father. Robin and Cindy, however, are convinced that his problems are a result of what they view as Shirley's stubborn refusal to believe him when he told her of Dan's visits to his sister's room at night.
Unable to work because of the demands DHS is making on her to attend therapy and counseling sessions, Shirley becomes frustrated and resentful. "The counselors have told me I cannot go to work until my son is stable," Shirley says. "I want to work. I want to know I can pay my own way. It put me in the hole. I almost lost my home."
Eventually, after months of waiting, a judge rules against DHS's request to remove Shirley's sons and orders that the boys remain with her.
After the filming of "The Caseworker Files" is completed, Shirley's ex-boyfriend Dan pleads guilty to molesting her daughter and, as of February 2003, is in prison. Shirley and her daughter are rebuilding their relationship. Her case with DHS has not been closed.