Failure to Protect
homelogan marrcaseworker fileschild policydiscussion
robin whitney
photo of whitney

During the course of filming "The Caseworker Files," Robin Whitney and her DHS supervisor consider whether or not to remove Shirley Mitchell's three boys from her home. Shirley's daughter was taken into DHS custody after she alleged that Shirley's boyfriend, Dan, had sexually molested her. Shirley does not believe her daughter's sometimes inconsistent stories about the alleged abuse, but nevertheless breaks off her relationship with Dan at DHS's insistence. Robin remains concerned, however, that Shirley's sons are still at risk. Until Shirley acknowledges the abuse, Robin says, she is putting their emotional health in jeopardy.

I think with her individual therapy, a lot of the things that prevent Shirley from parenting and doing a really good job parenting can be resolved for her.

[What needs to be done in Shirley Mitchell's case in order for her to keep her children?]

Well, for Shirley, to be empathetic towards the children, what...not only what they're going through now but what they've gone through in the past. Not only do the children need to have counseling to work through some of the stuff that they witnessed in the past, some of the stuff that currently is happening in the home like the disclosures of things that are happening and then mom telling them, "No that's not what's happening." Really confusing the children because they know what reality is but are being told not say what reality is.

I think if the whole family and Shirley is certainly open to this, to have family counseling in the home, someone to come in, be right there, and as things come up, as parenting issues come up, there's someone there that can either model what [parenting] really should like for Shirley, [can say] "stop right here and look what's happening. " It's very hard to say to someone, "Someone's going to come to your house twice a week for three hours and just be here and instruct you. Well, that's pretty intrusive. She's trying to get supper on and do things and try to act normal and there's these people there. So it's a big commitment on a parent's part to do that. And certainly at this point Shirley seems to be willing to do what she needs to do. So that's part of it, [plus] her own individual therapy so she can work through some things that are preventing her from being the better parent that she can be.

Shirley's case is a little different than some because Shirley really seems to be really willing to work with me and we can talk. I know Shirley's scared, I know she's probably angry. But she's willing to keep that connection to try to get this worked out before it gets to moving the children.

(Does Shirley say that to you)

well she says it, I mean she says I'm willing to do anything I can for my children which I've never had a parent not say that to me, whether they've been willing or not. They always...likewise I'll do anything for my children. but I think the other part of that is, is Shirley shows it because she calls me she asks me questions, when I call her she's more than willing to talk to me, meet with me, go over things again, so I mean she seems to be really open to trying to work with the department.

[Why you believe Shirley's daughter's allegations that Shirley's boyfriend Dan sexually abused her?]

Well, a couple reasons. One, children don't lie about sexual abuse. There was a real good article about, well, they did this study and all these kids that disclosed sexual abuse and then recanted, may have disclosed again, none of them had lied about the abuse. We found a lot of children disclose sexual abuse, they see what's going to happen because they've made this disclosure, and they recant. "No, I just made that up." In [Shirley's daughter]'s case she's not doing that. She also has a lot of details like what he was wearing, what he smelled like, where it happened, what he said, I mean very graphic things that even at fourteen, if she is worldly, she wouldn't have all these details and that's concerning.

[So you absolutely believe her.]

Yeah. Yeah. One hundred percent.

[Why can't Shirley believe her?]

I think I can understand because I wouldn't be able to believe that of a man I was involved with. You're first thought is it's horrible. It cannot be happening in my family. And I think in Shirley's case this is someone that she trusts. She's had a child with this man, he's been the father to her children, so I think it's just hard for that [reason]. And I don't know that she doesn't believe. I think that maybe there's some part of her that does know her daughter would not destroy this family or whatever [for no reason], and but I think Shirley has her own history of with, I don't know about the sexual abuse but physical abuse, the alcoholism, [so her attitude is] that these things are just things that happen in childhood and you move along.

[Do you think Shirley will be able to keep her children?]

Well, I always, regardless of what the situation is, I always believe that the person I'm working with can change. I think you have to believe that to do this job. So I believe that Shirley can with services.

I don't know about [Shirley's daughter]. I mean [Shirley's daughter] is not going to go back there. She is very, very angry. It would be a long time I think before [Shirley's daughter] will be able to reconcile with her mother. But as far as the boys I think there is work that Shirley can do that would make it safer for the boys. But I think a lot of it hinges on Shirley's willingness to work in individual therapy because she's got to come to some grips with, "Why don't I protect my children? Why did I allow this to happen for so long? Why didn't I respond immediately when my child came to me with this? And not just [Shirley's daughter], but the boys with the physical abuse years ago?" What prevents her from protecting her children?

I think it will take some time. Though I think Shirley is a very strong person and I think she's probably more able than some families I've worked with to admit that she's made these mistakes and saying how do I get past it. She's, I think, very sincere about wanting to do what's best for her children. But it's not knowing what that is. And not only not knowing what that is but then on top of doing all this stuff for her children, she's got all this stuff to do to survive. I mean she's got to keep her house and keep her lights on and keep her phone on and try to find a job and go to counseling and find a baby-sitter and she's got this ton of other stuff that has nothing to do with a crisis that's happening in her house right now, so she's got a lot on her plate.

[What are Shirley's strengths?]

I think Shirley's strengths as a parent are, she's willing to ask for help, and she's willing to listen. Not always take the advice, but willing to listen to what the recommendations are. She loves her children, I think she feels empathy for the children, which I think is an important part of this. She feels even though she didn't act quickly, she feels bad for her part in where the kids are now. The abuse from their father, she feels bad that she exposed the children to that. She does I believe have the ability to set aside her own needs for the children. Like having this man who she still believes may be a future person in her life, but having the ability to say at this point, he needs to be out of my life, I need to sort out what's going on with my children, she has the ability to do that. She has the ability to overcome I think her own fear, frustration, anger at the department to work with me to see if we can resolve some of the problems and safety issues in the house, and that's a big strength to have in her situation.

Shirley is very angry at the Department, though, because she feels like she has been making all these efforts, doing everything required of her, and not only does she get no credit for these efforts, the threat of losing her children is still hanging over her head. In looking back at your experience with Shirley, was there another way to approach her, to somehow get around or past this anger, to diffuse it? Did you have to put the removal of her remaining children at issue? Why not go to her and say, "Shirley, you seem to recognize that you have a problem. You want services; we think you need services; let's work together." Why bring that, that, as she puts it, that sword over her head?

I think this is--like for any case--one part is to honestly inform people. This is an option that the Department has. I think you have to be honest with people that this is something that could happen in this family in this situation.

Do you need this as a kind of stick to make people do what you think they need to do?

Sometimes you do. Sometimes people are willing to do services, and then the minute DHS steps out of the picture and all the services stop. Because it's hard work. Think about having someone come into your house for six hours a week and hang around and observe your family and talk to you. That's a lot to ask people to do. But when the outcome is the health of your family, lessen[ing] the severity of your children's abuse or [their] mental health issues, then I'm certain it's a good payoff.

But I think in the case with Shirley, we've attempted, many times, to do interventions with Shirley's family without court intervention. But Shirley wasn't willing to allow that process to even play out. I mean, she wasn't willing to allow us to interview the child more to talk about the allegations with the child.

So ultimately you, you as an institution have felt that this was [the] necessary step, the necessary last resort, as it were?

Yeah. I think that removing children is always the last resort.

What do you think's going to happen? What's your prediction?

I don't know how you predict. I think this family has a chance for success. Because I think Shirley really does love these children. And she has engaged in services with these children. Now, whether she's internalized anything yet, I have questions about that. But I do believe that she can do that. I think she can learn and go on to protect these children. I think with her individual therapy, a lot of the things that prevent Shirley from parenting and doing a really good job parenting can be resolved for her.

Shirley has so identified Shari [her therapist] with you. This started from the very first time you all met together the three of you--that we have on camera--she was concerned that Shari would reveal secrets in court be used against her. Do you expect that they can ever accomplish anything real in therapy, given this distrust that she has of Shari?

I think that they can. Shirley is angry now, as you said. But Shari's very upfront with Shirley. I think the things that Shari has said to Shirley about what she will and will not disclose to the Department is honest. Shari is certainly, very professional that way. She doesn't go behind a client's back to say anything. And I think as the anger goes away that Shirley will be able to see that. And I think Shirley does have a relationship with Shari, just based on the fact that I mean she goes back there every week. She is participating. And I don't think all of that is because of DHS standing over her. I think a lot of that is because she does have a relationship with Shari.

After the filming of "The Caseworker Files" was completed, Dan pled guilty of molesting Shirley's daughter and was sent to prison. As of February, 2003, Shirley and her daughter are rebuilding their relationship. Her three boys are still with her, but her DHS case has not been closed.

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