Failure to Protect
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david greeley
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David Greeley is the Maine DHS caseworker assigned to 10-year-old Matthew's case. After he investigates a report that Matthew's father, Keith, has physically abused the boy, David decides that Matthew should be taken into state custody for his own safety. Although the removal from his father is very traumatic for Matthew, David still feels that it is the right thing to do. "Although there was a lot of good in the relationship between Matthew and his father, there was also a lot of very damaging things," he says. In this interview, David talks about Matthew's case and the difficulties -- and rewards -- of his job.

You can't leave a kid in a traumatic situation with his family that's been going on for years just because taking him into custody would be traumatic for him.  That doesn't work.

[As a caseworker, who is it you're fighting for, the child or the family unit?]

A lot of times the age of the kid determines that there isn't really much sense in trying to do much more with the parents; you've just got to try to get the kid what he needs and get on with it. When a child's younger, he's looking at [needing] help for a long period of time, and the parents may be younger and more malleable, so you you maybe try harder with parents at that point, to get something that works.

But you've got a limited amount of time because kids that are identified as being in abusive situations have already been abused for probably for some period of time before somebody stepped forward with it. A lot of times it has to do with substance abuse and things that the parents don't get and aren't changing, and that takes time. So you've got to balance there, whether you're going to try to get something going with the parents, and whether you'll be successful, or whether you should be concentrating on getting a better placement going for the kid. And that's thing that we're working with all the time.

[How do you feel about the importance of the family bond?]

Well that's the number one unit on the planet, the connection with family. And so I look at that as being, something that you would break only if you would absolutely have to. The jargon that we use is "immediate risk of serious harm." And if that situation occurs, then we don't make the decision actually, we write up an affidavit and we find a judge and we say, "Here's what's happening, this kid's got to come out of there."

[How much of your work is governed by rules and how much by your own instincts?]

You've got to go by the book. You're on thin ice if you don't. It's a legal process, and the thing that makes us different than other social agencies is we're like an arm of the state in that we use the court system to remove kids and other social agencies are working on a voluntary basis with families. And we operate under a body of law that's in the state constitution. That's what our authority comes from. If we're not mindful of that then we're working in a way that we can be challenged or undermined by rule of law.

[Do you feel like the public does not understand caseworkers, or have a sense of the difficulties of your job?]

Yeah. I think a lot of times they hear of the few times when we made a call early in terms of removing kids, but many times they don't get the both sides of the story because we can't tell our side often because of rules of confidentiality. So a family may make all kinds of claims about their side of the story, so to speak and the public is aware of what they're saying, but not of the reasons why we have done what we've done. There may be reports from doctors, or school, or whatnot that we can't talk about. So you have to be sort of immune to the public in some senses. But you know as a worker, everybody hates us.

[How do you think caseworkers' personal backgrounds impact their decisions about the families they work with?]

Everyone I think would agree that there are certain times in the life of a community, if you want to look at it that way, where [everyone agrees that] there are things going wrong with a family [and that] somebody has to do something. Everybody has a different point of view. Somebody might say you should be in there the minute X,Y and Z happen. But I think that we call could agree that there are certain times when everybody feels as if somebody should be doing something, stepping in, taking those kids, and that's what we do. And there's the huge area, backing away from that, in the situation of where kids aren't getting enough, or a sort of a quality situation, where the kids could be doing much better if they were in another circumstance. That's where the individual workers here I think are probably different on the calls that they make.

I think that because I'm because I've raised a family and I've lived in the community and I live in an area that has a real mixed population. I live on the end of a dirt road myself and I see how families struggle to make a go of it up here and have for a long time. I'm not real quick to react to some things than I think maybe somebody who's been raised in suburbia and gone through the program and is in their early twenties and haven't had a family and doesn't know the stresses of married life and of raising kids [might be]. That gives you a little different perspective on it, but that's good because there's some plurality of points of view in this office.

[What is it like to remove a child from his parents?]

Well, it's traumatic. I can talk myself into thinking, "This is what I do and I have to be professional about it," the way a doctor is when he opens up a stomach or something. You just do it cause it has to be done. But you're aware of...of the anguish that's going on. So you just have to sort of say that you thought it through ahead of time and you're doing everything according to policy. It needs to be done, somebody in the community has to do it. That's what your job is so you do it, and you try to just get it done without any unnecessary unhappiness or crazy behaviors .

It's true that even these kids that are horrendously abused by their parents, they love their parents, so when you remove them, there's the bond there. There may have been all this other stuff, but they still love their parents and the parents still love them. And that's compelling.

[Would you say most of your cases are gray, rather than clearly black and white—"we must remove this child" vs. "we should definitely not remove this child?"]

Most of our "black" cases involve law enforcement, because of some kind of a an arrest for sexual abuse or some specific event like that. Sometimes we...we have the source of that information and then it become very clear to us very fast what we have to do. Those I guess are as close as they come to being black, if you want to look at it that way. On the white side you get people who are in acrimonious divorces, neighbors that are feuding, relatives that are feuding. And you get these reports in over and over that are very unsubstantiateable, they're just people basically causing trouble for other people. You have to always assume that there could be some some factual basis to it, but I think that our process screens them out often. Sometimes people become aware of what it takes, what they have to say to get a DHS worker to come down and that maybe what they want. So we get manipulated from time to time in those other cases that are on on the white side, but it takes you a while to figure that out. And then the rest of the cases, and that's what makes the work interesting I think are the ones that are in the middle and it's like, "What's going to happen here, are the parents going to do the right thing, are they going to respond? Can they do the right thing?" And that's those are the cases we carry for some time and work on as social workers.

[How did Matthew's case begin?]

When I started the case, I met the dad, and I had concerns about him but they're extremely close and so I tried to get him to go to services. He's been a life-long alcoholic and he's been in abusive situations in the past, he's got to learn a lot in order to be safe with his kid and I, maybe naively, thought that I could provide those services for him, encourage him so that he could encourage his son to to reach out to people to get close to people, to trust in a therapist and to be more positive about his school experience. He maybe progressed a little bit but about what was early February, there was a clear case of physical abuse and we didn't hesitate, we just immediately removed him.

Even given though the reaction that Matthew had to the removal?

Yeah, but we didn't know that would be the reactions.

Now that you know it?

Nah, I'd still do it. Because Matthew, he's got demons that he's gonna have to face in one way or another and [now] he's probably much better equipped to help him undo a lot of [the damage done to him.] He was basically taken from his mother at about three years old, so he's got abandonment issues with his mother. His mother was unable to care for him and the father was abusive. He had been living just with his father for seven years. He was the only real adult in Matt's life and as his father is an abuser and is aggressive, a liar, a substance abuser, and Matt has got a lot of those same behaviors.

Can you tell me how you went about substantiating the initial allegation in this case?

We opened the case last June. The dad was doing three weeks in Aroostook County jail for [a drunk driving violation]. He had made arrangements with Matthew's step-sister who was about 19 to take care of Matthew while he was incarcerated. We got a referral while she was caring for Matthew, and so I interviewed Matthew and the sister. There were allegations made about previous physical abuse by Keith to Matthew but I couldn't substantiate them because Matthew was unwilling to talk about it, and I didn't interview Keith [because] he was at that time was in jail. So we opened [the case] and kept an eye on the situation. Once Keith got out, I tried to encourage him to accept services. I told him that we were concerned about his substance abuse history and history of assaults, and that Matthew wasn't getting what he needed in terms of supervision. [Matthew and Keith] were very hesitant I felt to give me very much candid information about what was going on. He was more defiant about us being involved and [insisted] that everything was fine and that we should just leave him alone.

So that went on through the fall and I encouraged him to participate and sort of made some tentative arrangements at a social services agency, for therapy. And Matthew started school. There were a couple of reports from school, regarding his smoking and he was suspended a couple of times. He also went to school twice during the fall with pretty nasty shiners. When I interviewed him, he would not give me what I felt was honest information about where they had come from. One of them had to do with tripping on a shoe lace on the way to the mail box and hitting his eye on a stone in the yard. I think that story has since changed. Anyway, I substantiated for emotional abuse because of the substance abuse in the house and the lack of supervision and neglect, but for not physical abuse because I didn't felt I had really conclusive evidence about that.

Finally, after having more troubles and more interviews with the family, Keith started--he'd been attending a parenting program on a pretty regular basis and actually liking that and he did a good job with it and that agency offered him other services and we encouraged him--and so started to participate and Matthew started coming in for after school programs and seemed to be going fairly well. Matthew was coming in a couple times a week. Once to see a therapist and once with a play group with other three or four other boys that were sort of at-risk kids and they had a social session after school. It seemed to be working pretty well.

And then an event happened on the weekend of February 2nd where he was physically abusive to Matthew in the presence of another friend of his, a couple and their daughter, and she called the department on Monday morning. It would have been more appropriate had she made the report to the police or to the emergency hotline but she for whatever reason chose to wait until Monday morning to call the department. And at that point I was in [out of town] with a coworker [on another case] and I was contacted by [my supervisor] at about noon on that day coming back. She sent Robin [another caseworker] out to interview Matthew and she got the information about Matthew being physically abused--not from Matthew but from interviewing him and then asking the woman that was a witness to it to come in [asking him again] "Matthew can you tell me again what happened?"

And at that point Matthew decided that he needed to be more forthcoming about what had happened and identified and admitted to some of what the witness had spoken about. And on the basis of that it was decided to take Matthew into custody cause it was clear physical abuse. So I was called and asked to go to the office and to prepare paperwork for taking him in. I spoke with Robin and my supervisor and I called the witness to the physical abuse spoke with her, got what I felt was a clear and compelling description of what had gone on, and wrote a petition basically saying that the department's position was that Matthew needed to be removed from his father's custody because his father is unsafe particularly when drinking.

So we went ahead with that petition and Matthew was, from the time he was interviewed by Robin at school about noontime til when he was in the DHS office at probably 4 to 5, or 5 o'clock or so he was totally dissolved in tears, weeping. He was ultimately defiant but having a really hard time. He became somewhat assaultive and self-abusive at the DHS office. He was headbanging, and really distraught and my supervisor decided it was appropriate to send him by ambulance to Eastern Maine medical center. I wrote up the order and went to the judge and got it signed.

I met another worker at the hospital with him--this would be now about 7 o'clock at night. He was held there for a couple of hours until the representative of the psychiatric wing of the hospital was able to talk with the boy. He had seen a physical doctor by that point who had checked him out and found several scrapes, burn marks under his neck. He was unwilling to tell the doctor about what had happened, but when I talked to him afterwards about it and we had a talk about the necessity of being honest with people, he did admit that those things had happened when his father had grabbed him by the shirt and thrown him around. The doctor when I spoke with him afterwards concurred that they were very unlikely to have come about in the way that Matthew proposed which was that he was chasing his cat in the woods and got scraped by branches.

So a couple of times that day Matthew was able to tell the truth about those injuries and about what had happened to him. But he continued to revert back to his stories that absolve his father of any wrongdoing.

Let me ask you a couple of questions about what we've covered so far. You said the removal was traumatic for Matthew.

It's always traumatic for a kid.

Was it unusually traumatic in his case?

Yeah. Yeah it was. I think a certain percentage of kids are actually relieved that something is going to change. They're obviously wondering what's going to happen to them, but I think at least a certain part of their understanding of what's going on is that it's a positive thing. Matthew had an unusually strong connection to his father. His father has been his sole caretaker for the last couple of years. Matthew has not been able to bond well with other people in the community. I mean, he's had a one on one worker for months and he still maintains his distance from her. I think the message he's getting from his father is we're fine, we don't need any help, don't talk to anybody about anything. In another respect Matthew is also the caretaker for his father. He kept saying over and over, when we had taken him to the hospital for example, that he was concerned about his father. That his father was going to commit suicide and his father was going to be totally beside himself about what was happening. And that's unusual for a kid to speak about his parents this way.

Do you have the sense that this is a healthy or an unhealthy bond between Matthew and his father?

Well I think it's both. They really care a lot about each other, that's the positive thing, that's what father and sons are about. I see an awful lot of fathers who aren't very active in raising their kids. We see some that just leave and are not involved at all. We see others that oftentimes for reason of a custody dispute or protection order or for whatever reasons have absented themselves. This is not the case with Keith. Keith wanted his son, took his son, and as he has told me himself several times, his life revolves around his son. And I mean those are obviously positive emotions, and he has proven that by providing a reasonable home for his son and being being there for his son. There are some concerns in that the boy has isn't able to connect more in the community with other people. And I've had some concerns about things like nutrition in the home .

Clearly a child who is physically abused by a parent is suffering trauma. But there is a very strong bond between this father and the son. How does it make you feel and to have to be causing this child such distress by removing him?

You can't leave a kid in a traumatic situation with his family that's been going on for years just because taking him into custody would be traumatic for him. That doesn't work. And this is maybe a classic case of that. I don't have that much experience, but I've never seen a boy react so, be so unwilling to calm down and have adaptive behaviors to being in custody. Although there was a lot of good in the relationship between he and his father, there was also a lot of very damaging things. I guess, to take a long term view of it, we've got to get something working in that family now or that kid is going to be nothing but trouble, mostly to himself but to everybody else that he has to deal with for a long time. That's what we're trying to do. We're trying to make those corrections before a kid becomes a real problem to himself and to his family and to the community at large.

[Can you give us] an update on the Matthew case. How's Matthew been doing?

Well he's moved from the psychiatric ward where he was for seven weeks into a residence facility that's staff secured, which means it's locked, on the same campus at St. Mary's in Lewiston. This will allow him a chance to maybe go to public school and to be outside. That was one of things he really complained about, he didn't get any fresh air on the ward and they couldn't even have windows open with him because that was dangerous. So this is a positive step for him.

He spent seven weeks on a psychiatric ward?


To what extent were Matthew's problems after removal due to the removal itself, and to what extent to long-standing problems?

Well, there were problems existing before the removal that are pretty well documented. He's mildly MR [mentally retarded.] His behavior, both before and after removal, was very disruptive and lacking self-control. After removal, these things were more, first of all, they were more observed and documented and so forth, but he was obviously very angry about being taken from his dad and those behaviors became very obvious.

I would have much preferred that his father had been able to change his behavior enough to keep the boy home with him. We had an open case with the dad for more than half-a-year prior to removal and I had worked with the dad trying to get him to do services, basically to sober up and to try to be an advocate, in a positive way with his kid, and then we had an event occur where he was physically abusive and there were other adults there to report it, so we had intervene at that point, and we did.

Just as a general matter, do you feel that DHS, as an institution, takes into account the trauma of removal sufficiently?

It's traumatic. I mean, once in a while, you have a kid who's relieved and glad but it's much more likely that the kid is extremely upset. We have to do it in a certain way that I think may be, could be, less traumatizing, but it would require a lot of things that are very difficult to coordinate to have that happen. So it happens the way it does which is, often times, really upsetting. It's upsetting for a worker a lot of times.

Tell me what it feels like for a worker?

Well you're [dealing with] the hostility of everybody around because you're sort of the active ingredient. You have thought about it ahead of time, you've written an affidavit and you sign your name to it and you're committed to it--and you can't do it unless you're committed to it--but you're still dealing with people's raw emotions and that can be pretty hard.

After a while does that have an effect on you? Removal after removal, I know it's not a huge number, but do you find yourself losing sensitivity at all?

I think you learn maybe things that are helpful to say and to do and things that you should stay away from. Having said that, every case is different, so you can't be sure about that. Emotionally, it's hard to do but I guess it's the reason I got into the work, it it has to be done and doing it in the best way possible is why I'm doing the work. So I try to do it as well as I can and sometimes you have to just stand right in people's faces and say this is going to happen and do it.

One thing that we've noticed again and again, in the various cases that we've observed, is how much anger there is towards DHS caseworkers and how much of that anger gets in the way of progress, or of reunification efforts or whatever. Sometimes it seems like the role you guys play, trying to be the cop and the social worker at the same time, almost inevitably leads to anger.

Yeah, well we're not really social workers anymore.

What are you if you're not a social worker?

I guess we're sort of triage in the community as to what direction a case is going in. There are some states now where I think a lot of this work is done by law enforcement, or people with much more of a law enforcement background. And they get out of it way earlier than we do. I'd be content to doing that work and not having to deal with cases, or having to deal just with cases, but I think there's something to be said for a specialty in going out and making contact and making a safety assessment and saying this can stay in the community as a family as long as they accept services. And then at that point, if there's a determination made that we have force services or force removal, give that to another worker to work on.

So there wouldn't be that confusion of roles?

Yeah, I think it would be and you also get better at your job. I still don't know all the ins and outs of placement because I'm doing that on the early stages and the kid progresses through the system, there's things that I need to be looking out for that I'm still learning about. I like to be good at my job and if it's more specialized I guess that would help me to be better at it.

How many cases do you have right now? Give us an idea.

Well, I probably have seven or eight cases and three of them are requiring a huge amount of work, the other five I'm not doing nearly what I should be doing, which I'll have to make up. Sometimes those cases blow up on you. And then you have safety assessments that come in on a regular basis and those, depending on how they go, have an intermediate stage and then get made into cases. So you have to be doing those, and those you know you're suppose to respond to within ten days .

Has it ever crossed your mind to leave? Are you feeling at all burned out?

People tell you, before you even start, they give you a couple of years, so I figure I've outlasted everyone's expectations at this point. I do like to work. I went to a workshop the other day, and the presenter, who's a published author, said that he has conducted a lot of exit interviews with caseworkers and he finds that the majority of them say it's the office work that drives them out of casework, not the contact with the clients, and that's very much the case with me. I like the contact with clients and back when I first started, when I was in the field about half the time, I really enjoyed that because I was talking with people and I was doing things that were interactive with the clients. So much of what we do increasingly is just filling in squares on the computer. I know it has to be done but it makes the job much less appealing for me.

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