As a former foster parent for the state of Maine, your program confirmed many of the perceptions I formed of caseworkers' and therapists' psychological maturity. Our family therapist -- like Shirley's, but I was NOT a birth parent under the thumb of DHS -- was condescending to me and, far, far worse, emotionally needy of the attachment-disordered teen we were fostering.
Many caseworkers I met did not seem to have dealt with their own family issues, which affected how they interacted with the children in their care. People who sit in judgment of other people must be very wise people, and it is not enough that they are functioning at a slightly higher level than the families they profess to be helping. Fascinatingly, while many caseworkers seemed to me to be functioning rather minimally -- low affect, childish dress and speech, anger and impatience -- they expected foster parents to epitomize godlike perfection and to be willing to be treated as first-graders.
And I would heartily second the letter writer who mentioned their inability to work with substance abuse issues. DHS readily admits that most, if not all, of the children taken into custody come from homes where substance abuse is an issue. Yet our therapist stated she had little experience with substance abuse, and it has taken me years to realize that our foster child brought an alcoholic family system into our home, which was reinforced by the caseworker, the therapist, and the social worker who visited our home each week.
Foster parenting is the world's most difficult job. It is one thing to want to parent a troubled child, but I had no desire to parent the so-called "professionals" who trotted into my life on the heels of the child.
Congratulations on the fine presentation of issues relating to child welfare. However, you failed to include one program which does work and does make a difference in the lives of many young children. That is the CASA program-Court Appointed Special Advocates. All CASAs are volunteers who take their committment to children very seriously.
CASAs do make a real difference in the lives of the children they advocate for. Studies show that children who have a CASA stay in foster care for much shorter periods of time. These children do not get "lost in the system". Because we give the Court system an independent view of what is best for this particular child, our reports are of great value to the Court.
In the nearly eight years that I have been a CASA, I have seen both the good and the bad in the child protective system. The good greatly outweighs the bad. Most of the problems derive from indadequate funding. Until this country makes a genuine committment, with proper funding, to its children, we will continue to have undertrained, poorly paid, overworked and overwhelmed caseworkers.
During the presentation on casework files, mention was made of the shorter period of time before Termination of Parental Rights can take place. This was a much needed change. Prior to the enactment of the Safe Familys Act, children often remained in foster care for many years, even though it was clear to an observer that they needed a permanent solution. A year may not be very long in the life of an adult who is trying to make significant changes in his or her life. But for the two year old child, that year is one half of his life. How long can we expect the child to wait in legal limbo for a parental change that may never come?
One other point, although some caseworkers do not have proper training, that is not always true. It is my understanding that in Baltimore County, MD, no caseworker will be hired unless he or she has a Master's Degree in Social Work. It's a great pity that other jurisdictions do not follow this example.
glen rock, pa
I was deeply disturbed by the control freaks making life decisions for people and their children [in your film]. Even when an opportunity presented itself for the caseworker to educate his client about the right thing to do to avoid destroying the family unit, "guess if you can" was their answer.
Alcoholics numb themselves so they won't feel bad for a while; the caseworkers did nothing to try to cut through the mist. Instead, they enabled the alcoholic to let responsibility for his child's removal from the relationship roll right off his shoulders.
Perhaps people who are politically correct like our civil servants don't have the right stuff when it comes to being direct in their communication with their clients. I am not surprised at all that children are dying; nor am I surprised that children are repeatedly removed from otherwise loving homes. When the caseworker starts to think ,instead of blindly follow guidelines created by people without knowledge of individual case circumstances, will the situation then change.
I was physically, sexually and emotionally abused; but I never would have said anything because "the NO TALK rule" in alcoholic households is a prime directive; you have to know something is wrong to recognize your abuse; you have to know you have a better bridge to jump to before you burn the one you're on; you better be able to prove this happened to you or you'll be right back where you started and in worse trouble than before.
I was much better off in an environment I knew, even in those circumstances. I lived through it and though I abhor it, it was familiar and it was my home.
I give an A to Spinak, Wexler, Roberts and Lowry for their clear and intelligent comprehension of the problems that exist in our system of child protection, not only in Maine, but across the nation.
F to the caseworkers for being so incredibly arrogant and incompetent. Why such a great divide between the intellect of the caseworkers and the intellect of the advocates presented in this story? Why do we empower idiots to take our children away?
Who created this complex and horrific system that abuses to prevent abuse? Will we one day have a better society because of all the years of enforcing child protection as it exists today?
When will Frontline tell the story from the parents p.o.v.? Keep feeding the monster and one day it will be stronger than you.
|FRONTLINE's editors respond:|
The writer is referring to the comments of child welfare experts Spinak, Wexler, Roberts and Lowry. They wrote about their reactions to our report, "The Caseworkers' Files." You can read their reactions elsewhere on this site.
It's ironic that you didn't interview the experienced "experts" of the foster care system; the children who went through the system.
From age 3 1/2 to 18, I was placed in several homes in the CA system. Some were difficult and one was very, very loving. To this day, I'm very grateful for those overworked, underpaid, heavy hearted social workers who fought fiercely to keep me out of a neglectiful and dangerous family.
If they hadn't, I wouldn't be able to experience and enjoy the the wonders of my own family; a loving wife and 3 adorable children.
I want to applaud your producers for tackling the profoundly disturbing buit important issue of protecting our nation's most vulnerable children from a caretaker's abuse or neglect.
However, you overlooked the important role the public can play in protecting these vulnerable children. I am executive director of a grassroots nonprofit organization in Northern Virginia, Fairfax Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). Our organization, and 25 other programs in Virginia, recruits, screens, trains, and supports community volunteers. Our juvenile court judges appoint CASA volunteers to advocate for the best interests of abused or neglected children while they are in dependency proceedings. We also are part of the National CASA Association based in Seattle, Washington, and hundreds of similar local programs nation-wide.
CASA was founded in 1977 by a Seattle Circuit Court Judge who wanted more and better information about a child's best interests, before making life-altering decisions about the child's custody. Because a CASA volunteer's exclusive role is to be the child's voice in court, reporting only to the judge, CASA volunteers often bring much needed objective information about each child's family circumstances to the court. Just as importantly, CASA volunteers help keep children from falling through the cracks of the social welfare system by visiting children in care at least twice a month (and frequently more often) and monitoring court orders to ensure family members are in compliance with the judges orders.
Although CASA volunteers work with a team--DFS workers, the GAL, and service providers--to determine the best interests of each child, the CASA volunteer's paramount goal is to protect each child from further abuse and ensure that that child is placed in a safe and permanent home.
The Maine child welfare workers illustrate the limitations of large bureaucracies charged with responding to complex social problems. The agency is not fundamentally corrupt or incompetent, but is severely limited by the legal and professional constraints attendant to administering the Maine child welfare system. Voluminous paperwork requirements, poor training, rapid staff turnover, high case loads and lack of supervision are common to most large, urban child welfare systems, and contribute to system-wide bad outcomes. In contrast, Maine's system appears to work better than most, despite its failure in Logan Marr's case.
Two years ago Katelyn Fraser, a three-year old in Alexandria, Virginia, died at the hands of her mother's paramour. Her case was the flip side of young Logan's, and received widespread attention locally and nationally. Instead of keeping Katelyn in the home of her loving foster parents, who wanted to adopt her, the local DSS workers and supervisors worked diligently to return Katelyn to her mother, despite dramatic warning signs that Katelyn was being hurt while in her mother's care. Since Katelyn's death, the City commissioned the Child Welfare League of America to study and make recommendations to how to improve agency practice in "high risk" cases like Katelyn's.
One component of the CWLA recommendations is broadening the circle of participants in DFS's permanency planning process. As Judge Soukup recognized twenty-five years ago in Seattle, by introducing caring and objective citizens into the court process, better decisions could be made about a child's best interests.
According to the CWLA, shining more light on the various agencies entrusted with the lives of young children, as CASA volunteers do, is another mechanism for improving outcomes for abused children. Unlike other agencies of government that strive for "transparency," court dependency proceedings and agency activities are shrouded in secrecy in order to "protect the confidentiality" of the families involved. While this is a laudable goal, confidentiality too often fails to protect children and shields incompetent officials from accountability and public scrutiny. Blanket secrecy in agency and court proceedings undermines our democratic values, until tragedy occurs, when the media have a field day, the family is publicly shattered, and an outraged community demands retribution. As an open society, we can do much, much, better for our children without exposing them or their families to public shame.
While I'm not suggesting the CASA model is a panacea or a "quick fix" to cure the ills of overburdened child welfare systems, especially in cities where thousands of children are in foster care, CASA programs can be significant step in the right direction of bringing citizens into the important work of protecting our children and ensuring public officials charged with their safety are accountable for the decisions they make, well before a child dies.
I hope the conversation Frontline started doesn't end with one debate among the press, academics, child advocates, and bureaucrats. I urge you to revisit these issues again and again until every community takes full responsibility for protecting its children by devoting the public and private resources to the care. Listen to CASA volunteers, too. The stories they tell may help us all to feel more hopeful that individuals can stop child abuse, protect our children, and prevent them from becoming adults who perpetuate their family's cycle of abuse-one child at a time.
*The views and opinions reflected in this letter are mine alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fairfax CASA volunteers, staff or board members.
First I would like to congratulate you for bringing to light the difficult issues involved in child protective services (CPS).
I work for CPSin LA County. I read all the letters published and they represent all sides of the issues, outraged individuals that want to place all the responsability on the case workers, the system; others that feel that no matter what, children should stay with their parents; and yet others who feel that CPS should remove more children from their homes.
To all the outraged individuals, I say, do something with your rage, for example follow the advise of the CASA volunteer and become a volunteer, become a foster/adoptive parent, study to become a CPS worker, become a mentor to a teenage mother with few resources, or maybe go to thrift stores and purchase gift certificates to donate to parents involved in CPS (the suggestion that a thrift sore voucher be given to the fictional mother to replace the coffee table). The problem is that the "system" does not have money to provide vouchers for thrift stores, electricians, contractors and so forth.
Furthermore, to all the outraged individuals, you and I are THE SYSTEM. You and I are responsible for the death of children involved in CPS; whether at the hands of their birth parents of their foster parents.
Society makes a lot of noise when these tragedies occur. In between tragedies nothing is done. Yes there are not enough case workers (how many people do you think want to work in high stress/underpaid/unappreciated job?). There are not enough resources to pay for services (CPS do not have the authority to divert foster care monies to pay for services to avoid foster care). How many of you out there are willing to have your taxes increased to provide all the necessary, intensive services most of these parents need in order to keep the children safe? We are talking about early intervention with at risk families, housing, substance abuse treatment, vocational training, mental health services (for both parents and children), child care , transportation money, money for food and clothing, money for tutoring and so forth.
Until society and the outraged individuals in particular put their money where their mouth is, please spare me your outrage.
los angeles, ca
As a social worker working for a Chief Medical Examiner and charged with the responsibility of reviewing the services provided by child welfare services after the death of a child in a family receiving service, the Casework Files were deeply disturbing. I appreciated seeing Richard Gelles making the point about assessing risk. So much of what I heard from the "system" seemed to be conditioned responses to certain events rather than a thoughtful analysis of that particular family's situation.
It was discouraging to see that so much "work" with families consisted of telephone calls rather than in-person contacts. I've worked as a caseworker in a poor neighbourhood--so poor that many clients did not have telephones.
A comment on Shirley's story--despite my concerns about the casework and the quality of the therapy provided, I noted that Shirley's boyfriend was convicted of sexually abusing her daughter. This reinforced that Shirley's refusal to consider the possibility that this could have happened placed her children at real risk. However, the supervisor's comment that removing Shirley's children would enable her to concentrate on dealing with her own issues showed very little understanding of families.
It's very difficult working in a system where so many "experts" and outsiders second-guess decisions after a disaster occurs. By and large, the Maine workers seemed to be making sincere efforts to do a decent job.
Thanks for providing a balanced view of a highly emotional topic.
Jan Christianson-Wood, MSW, RSW
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
winnipeg, manitoba, canada
As a psychologist specializing in work with court-involved children and families, I thought your program was well done but missed two essential areas of discussion. I hope that you will at some point consider another program in which you address issues such as:
1) The role of mental health professionals in the system. In Shirley's case, the role of the therapist was handled inappropriately. First, the caseworker stated her expectation that the therapist would tell her if Shirley could be a safe parent, without having observed the parent-child relationship. It is generally considered unethical for a therapist to state an opinion about a relationship that he or she hasn't seen.
Second, the issue of the limitations on confidentiality was addressed only by Shirley - neither the caseworker nor the therapist adequately addressed these concerns. (The reality may have been that Shirley could not get her children back without waiving some of the confidentiality in her treatment, but this issue deserved to be addressed more than it was.) Third, the therapist failed to advocate for her client (Shirley) when Shirley made a reasonable request, i.e. that the caseworker correct inaccurate information which had allegedly been provided to the court by DHS. Cases are often affected by the complications of court-ordered treatment, therapists who are asked to express opinions without adequate information, and therapists who are selected by Child Protective Services but are providing treatment to parents. These services can be provided well and within appropriate boundaries. We did not see good example of this in this program.
2) OPEN ADOPTION - This was a HUGE hole in the "part III" (professional discussion) part of this program. All of your speakers acted as though they had a forced choice between providing a permanent home for the younger child and working toward reunification. Assumptions were also made that the siblings in your case had no attachment to each other. There has been increasing research into innovative service approaches, such as mediated settlements and open adoption, which allow children to remain in stable homes (if reunification with natural families isn't possible), while still having periodic visits with parents and siblings. When successful, this may also prevent some of the identity issues that adopted children often face.
I know you couldn't cover everything in your program, but these are significant issues. I hope you can do another program in which they can be addressed.
Lyn Greenberg PhD
los angeles, ca
It is totally mind-boggling to see a section of our government act so totally irresponsibly to the weakest part of our society: the children.
The actions of the Maine DHS in helping the families of Maine is built on one five-letter word - "refer" -when it should be based on another - "action." It is also based on a belief in a therapeutic form which has been for all practical purposes exposed and re-exposed as being nothing more than a socially-accepted form of greed: psychotherapy.
All the social workers involved in the production of this program should be forced not to simply "refer" theri clients to other social agencies, who in turn "refer" to other soical agencies, to build a meaningless, worthless paper trail of referrals, but should be educated and initiate applications for assistance on behalf of their clients with various agencies and programs to get their clients the help they need..grants and help-in-kind to make a home more habitable, a visit to a local thrift store to get a voucher for $20 to replace a coffee table with glass shards rather than involving the entire law enforcement and judical communities, probably at a cost of $500 - $1,000 in expense to taxpayers, to go through their machinations to seize a child from its home as in the case of a broken coffee table or a dilapidated rural home with frayed electrical wires.
Obtain information and help them fill out applications to increase their education, so they can possibly get a job, rather than taking their children away because of lack of education and inability to get a job.
"Referrals" are the most pathetic example of total worthlessness and total lack of responsibility that exist, but social services thrive on their mountains of meaningless and worthless "referrals." DHS and CPS are in need of a shake-up from their mission statement down to their burgeoning desire to refer, rather than to act, to solve problems.
As a Mother of two wonderful teenage sons I so dearly love I was drawn to the program about our current child welfare system and how our nation's children are being lost into the very system that was designed to protect them.
When I was 12 my 10 year old sister was deemed "uncontrollable" by our stepmother who convinced our father to place her in foster care where she remained until she was 18. While in the care of the system she was abused and neglected and once even had her waist length golden blond hair cut to her ears because she ran away from her "home".
Because of how she was treated she did not have the neccesary skills needed to become a loving parent so when she had children of her own and abused and neglected them they, of course were taken from her and were abused and neglected even more in foster homes. When she finally did get them back it was too late, the damage had been done. So severe was the damage she did not recognize the enemy when it came upon her and her daughter. My niece and her unborn baby were murdered about two years ago. The person who did this is in prison for life without parole.
My sister was failed by her parents but also by a system that helped put into motion a lifetime of downward spiral that could care less about one small child.
I have spent many nights awake wondering how her life could have been different if enough people had cared about what happened to her as a person. Maybe my niece and her baby would be alive today. Untill we address issues about how we as a nation will truly care for our children who for one reason or another must be removed from birth parents then I am saddened to say this is a story that will be repeated again and again. There has to be a better way. God,I sure hope so.
las vegas, nevada
I don't agree with a few of Dorothy Robert's views, but I want to applaud her for saying what no one likes to admit, that the governmental social services system focuses its efforts to force value systems upon poor people, in a judgmental and overwhelmingly paternalistic manner.
As Roberts said, that such an interruption in "Janice's" hypothetical family would never have occurred if she were middle or upper class in income, is a clearly-stated condemnation of a policy that issues Big Brother the privilege of telling some people how they may live, when really what is needed is help and support at an earlier point of intervention. Why not promote and provide child care services, parenting support, mental health counseling, and life skills education, instead of waiting for that bad situation to brew, or that crisis to blow up?
It's true that some people cannot be acceptable parents, and that a system of foster care will probably always need to exist, but it is a system based upon a paradigm that must be revolutionized, for the sake of the children and the preservation of American families.
Thank you for bringing this issue and discussion to our attention.
I have contracted with DHS as a mental health counselor for 10 years, in four counties, providing parent training, mental health counseling, and sexual abuse counseling. I was forced to retire due to cuts in services. I would like to offer several observations:
1) General lack of adequate education of the case workers. I have known some with only GED and agencie's training. Some were young people straight from school, with no work or life experience. The lack of adequate professional training and appropriate formal education included branch managers.
2) Enmashment between DHS and counselors, and the DHS workers abusing the priviledge of client-counselor communication in the name of cooperation.
3)By far the greatest number of clients had no connection with community, no reliable family or community support. I have no memory of working with clients with education above High School, and with employment above blue collar level. The greatest majority were single parent families, mostly mothers living in powerty. If there was an extended family involved, the relationships were highly conflictual, with several generations of conflicts and difficulties.
4)The foster families, very difficult to find, were not provided with sufficient training and accurate information regarding special isues involved in caring for the foster children.
5)The legal help available to the clients was often unreliable, and insuficient.
6)An interesting observation: in the community where 1/3 of residents were of Japaneese ancestry, there were virtually no cases of families involved with DHS. In my belief, the questions we need to address are questions related togreater, social issues in our country.
The need for DHS is a symptom of the culture, and its shortcomings will continue to grow, until we adress the question of disintegration of families, communities.
Thank you for providing a forrum for this discussion... the survival of our country and culture is at stake, in addition to the immesureable suffering of the innocent.
Finally, a balanced, objective, fair, sensitive portrayal of the challenges of child welfare workers.
Richard Gelles is misrepresenting the educational level of child welfare workers on average across the country. While I greatly respect the work he's done for years, he's being overdramatic. Has he ever been a social worker?
Rose is only one child's experience. Ask another child and they may say, "Thank God for taking me out of that horrible, scary home! Why didn't you take me sooner?"
Here, here - George Miller and Judge Blatz.
Eloise Andersen said it. "Crap rolls downhill. It all gets dumped on the caseworker." Right on.
Dorothy Roberts does a very poor job of risk assessment. The REASON the children were removed was not poverty. It was because two young children were left unsupervised for many hours at night, placing them in immediate risk for harm. In addition, mother left marijuana and a bottle of vodka, and a broken glass table in reach of two young children. It has nothing to do with poverty. It has everything to do with proper supervision of young children and the risk of injury posed by the mother's negligence. Would any of us think a child should be left in that situation?
I'm typing as I'm watching. A great show, a great debate, good issues raised. Thank you. For the first time ever, a true picture of the child welfare crisis in this country.
Now, what are the solutions?
santa rosa, ca
I have been a foster parent in Maine for eight years. I had a real bias against birth families when I first got into this. I didn't want them in my home or even to know my name and phone number. I assumed they were terrible people, even potentially dangerous to me. When I started meeting some, and had a more positive reaction to them than I expected, the DHS worker was quick to tell me they were "awful people, just awful." I was told there were things I didn't know, couldn't know due to confidentiality laws, but if I did know, I would agree.
I had been doing this for 2 years when a worker admitted to me that most of the information in a particular parent's file was a lie. "The worker before me couldn't stand the father so he basically built a case against him so he would never get his kids back." The worker actually told me that "There are things you can't know due to confidentialty laws" is just something they say when they have nothing else to say.
When Logan Marr died, the whole state was buzzing with the question, "What did the birth mother do to lose her daughter?" She looked kind of nice on the news, not like someone who would lose her child for abuse. But everyone I talked to knew a DHS worker or knew someone who knew a DHS worker who told them, "There are things you can't know due to confidentialty laws, but if you did know, you wouldn't waste any sympathy on that mother."
Now FRONTLINE has told us the whole story about Christie Marr and why she lost her daughter. Everyone in Maine who was paying attention learned what I learned. Confidentialty laws are being used to protect DHS, not the children it its care, as they were intended. There was no big shocking secret about Christie Marr. As a matter of fact THAT was the big shocking secret. She didn't do anything that should have cost her the right to raise her own child.
Christie, like so many of the birth parents I have gotten to know, is a good person, a good mother, and is only different from me and my circle of friends in that she was less lucky in life. I'd rather have her in my home than many of the caseworkers I have had to deal with.
If just one good thing could come out of this series, I wish it would be to get rid of those "confidentialty laws." Bright light would be shown on real child abuse when it exists, but it would also shine on abuse of power.
I am an investigator with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. I would have never taken custody of Logan and Bailey. I would have opened the case for intact services. Our intact workers would have made weekly visits, provided services to Christy and even her mother, made referrals for counseling, job training and provided family support. We would have given her a chance.
When Sally was asked the question about dealing with difficult children and made the remark that she couldn't imagine that happening. Her statement should have been a warning. She was being unrealsitic.
I suggest that Maine take a look at Illinois's policy and procedures. We're all in this thing together; saving children and maintaining families.
I was really impressed with the panel. Very informative, helpful and a great training tool.
Thank you for this segment.
|FRONTLINE's editors respond:|
The "National Dialogue" panel is available here in streaming video.