Failure to Protect
homelogan marrcaseworker fileschild policydiscussion
An Interview with the Producers

The producers of "Failure to Protect" -- Rachel Dretzin, Barak Goodman, and Muriel Soenens -- talk about the challenges and surprises they encountered in making "The Taking of Logan Marr" and "The Caseworker Files."

photo of rachel dretzin

Rachel Dretzin

photo of barak goodman

Barak Goodman

photo of Muriel Soenens

Muriel Soenens

What effect, if any, did the death of Logan Marr have on the approach of Maine DHS to abuse and neglect cases?

As a result of Logan Marr's death, Maine is in the midst of a sweeping review of its child protective system. Although numerous reform efforts are being explored, there were several tangible and immediate responses to the Marr tragedy. The most important was an urgent emphasis on what are called "safety checks" -- the regular visits caseworkers are required to make to children both in birth families and foster homes. Under the pressure of high caseloads, these safety checks are often put off. But when a child dies, safety checks often become the first thing that beleaguered agencies focus on. Maine was no different. The problem was that Maine, like other states, did not appropriate a great deal of money to allow its caseworkers extra time to perform these checks. It remains to be seen whether this reform will refocus caseworkers, or simply overwhelm them.

Why did you decide to focus on Maine?

We decided to focus on Maine after several months of researching child welfare on a national level. There were several reasons we picked Maine: First, because we wanted to zero in on one state instead of doing a survey of different systems across the country. Maine's system was small enough to get our arms around. Second, Maine's is considered one of the better child protective systems in the country -- less burdened by enormous caseloads than some of the larger urban areas. We thought this might immunize us from the charge that we had picked the most dysfunctional system, and allow us to focus on the universal dilemmas in child welfare systems.

Perhaps most importantly, we became interested in Maine after hearing of the Logan Marr case. In the spring of 2001, when we began our research, the state was in the midst of a reckoning over Logan's death in foster care several months earlier. Two state congressional committees were investigating the system, and all over the state, there was an awareness of the need for reform. The system had already begun to open itself a little to outside eyes, and our hope was that we could pry it open still further.

» Producer Rachel Dretzin also went online after the program's broadcast to answer viewers' questions. Read the transcript of this Washington Post Live Chat.

» Producer Barak Goodman participated in a live chat with the Washington Post following the broadcast of "Failure to Protect: The Caseworker Files." Read the transcript here.

Can you talk about what it took to get the Maine DHS to agree to give you access? What limitations, if any, did they place on your access?

On our first trip to Maine, we met with Kevin Concannon, the commissioner of DHS, and asked him to consider allowing our cameras some access to the state's child protective system. Our argument was simple: Given the backlash against the agency after Logan Marr's death, we believed it would be in their interest, as well as ours, to allow us to tell a more complex story. It was important to Concannon that we had a long lead time, and could take the time to immerse ourselves in the nuances of the system.

Despite our efforts, it took several months for the agency to reach a decision. Although they refused to comment on the Logan Marr case, they did eventually agree to give us access to some ongoing cases. Once they did green-light the project, they exceeded our expectations. Their conditions were few, but they were firm: We could not compel anyone to cooperate. Only those caseworkers who were willing to participate could be followed by our cameras. Their interactions with family members could only be filmed if all non-minors in the family agreed to the filming (which turned out to be a difficult logistical problem for us since the caseworkers' first encounters with families are usually a surprise). The most difficult point involved the filming of children in state custody. Officials in the department were naturally extremely sensitive about their obligation to protect children. We finally agreed to treat each kid on a case-by-case basis. Finally, any of the parties in a case could pull out at any time if they changed their minds.

How willing were the participants?

We were very encouraged by the initial responses we got from caseworkers. They were not only willing but eager to discuss the challenges of their jobs. They seemed grateful finally to be able to answer the criticism directed at them, after silently enduring what they felt to be repeated misrepresentations in the media about the nature of their work.

In a similar vein, many of the families we met felt that participating in the film offered a rare opportunity to tell their side of the story. These families overwhelmingly felt that when the state became involved in their lives they were powerless, at the mercy of a system unaccountable to anyone. Many of them were surprisingly willing to share the personal details of their histories, in exchange for what they perceived as a bit of power in their ongoing battles with the state.

Our agreement with all our subjects was that they could direct us to turn our cameras off at any moment -- and those moments invariably came up. In the course of making this film, the real challenge was to strike a balance between accurately telling an important story, respecting the privacy of families, and allowing the caseworkers do their jobs effectively. This was a struggle that took place on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Ultimately, our subjects' willingness to give us access to their worlds, in both the good and the bad moments, speaks to the importance they attached to telling their stories.

What was the most surprising or shocking thing that you came across in researching these stories?

Most surprising to us was that a system charged with one of the gravest of governmental responsibilities -- the protection of children -- does so under the strain of too many cases, and inadequately trained and poorly paid staff.

It is a system that routinely imposes one of the most drastic penalties -- the termination of parental rights -- yet does so with next to no public scrutiny or right of appeal.

This work, which calls for wisdom born of great life and work experience, is instead given to people who have the best of intentions but are generally speaking untrained in child and family psychology or social work. The expectation is that the relationship with a more seasoned supervisor will serve as a check and balance. While this is certainly true to a degree, the supervisor has to trust the caseworker to accurately recount her observations, which are inevitably selective and subjective. The supervisors then use these imprecise observations to make decisions about a family's motivations and predictions about their actions in the future. These predictions are soon hardened into judgements, which in turn become case plans which can alter a family's life forever. Once a case has been opened on a family and the ball is rolling, it is extraordinarily difficult if not impossible to undo what has been started.

In what is probably an effort to compensate for a lack of formal training, the system gives caseworkers and supervisors a set of 'psychological tools' to help them make better assessments. The importance of these initial assessments cannot be underestimated. They are the foundation upon which the rest of the case lies and they become vital interpretative documents about a family. The dismaying irony is that although these tools are designed to treat complex family dynamics more fairly, it seems that caseworkers and supervisors more often use them to boil down complexity into a set of pre-packaged psychological platitudes. The result is that tools meant to help a children and families just as often wind up hurting them.

Most of the cases in "Failure to Protect" seemed to fall in a gray area, where it was clear the child was not in an ideal situation, but it was not entirely obvious that removal from the home was the best solution. Did you ever come across a case where it was absolutely clear, where the decision to remove a child from his or her home was beyond debate?

The vast majority of child welfare cases nationwide fall into what's called the "GRAY zone," where there is no clear-cut evidence of abuse or even of severe neglect. In "The Caseworker Files" we decided to focus on these grayer cases, both because they are so common, and because they allowed us to dramatically explore the difficult decision making involved in child protection.

Apart from one or two egregious cases of child sexual abuse -- for example, a 5-year-old girl who had been systematically sexually abused by her uncle for years with the full knowledge of other adults in the home -- there were very few cases we heard about where the decision to remove was entirely beyond debate. Even those cases that at first felt clear always became more complicated as more information was brought to light.

The class issues evoked by "The Caseworker Files" were striking. Most of the families involved with DHS seemed to be lower income families. Does this reflect the larger reality of the system in other states?

Yes. Across the nation, the population of families involved with the child welfare system is uniformly poor and disproportionately minority. While middle and upper middle class people do occasionally get visited by child protective workers, they are usually able to fend off an investigation by calling in attorneys who protect their interests. By contrast, poorer people who become entangled with the system are often unaware of their rights and unable to afford good legal representation. They are more often "used" to government intervention in their lives and more likely to live in neighborhoods where informing is part of the culture.

Did you feel your presence there had any effect on the outcome of the cases or the behavior of the caseworkers?

Having spent considerable time with our subjects prior to shooting we felt that their on-camera behavior was consistent with what we knew of them. That is not to say that in some circumstances our presence did not encourage them to be more outspoken or conversely make them more reserved. However, with the hours of footage we had, we did end up creating what we believe is an accurate portrait of them. Once or twice caseworkers commented that our presence made members of a family act more aggressively or compliantly than normal and there was also one family who felt that our cameras made the caseworker treat them better than they would have otherwise. But generally we found, as we often do, that the camera seemed to "disappear" remarkably quickly.

It would be naive to presume that a camera has no effect on outcomes. If the camera is on you and you are making important decisions about the fate of a child you will probably feel pressed to follow the system's guidelines very carefully. But in the end, the decision-making was so dispersed among caseworkers, supervisors, lawyers, and judges that it is doubtful we were a significant factor in any situation.

Is there an inherent contradiction in caseworkers' roles? On one hand, they are trying to help parents who need training and resources to provide safe homes for their children. In that capacity, they should be "on the parents' side." On the other hand, it often seemed that an adversarial relationship developed between the caseworkers and the parents -- understandable, since they are wielding such great power over parents' lives. How did you find the caseworkers to understand their role?

The problem of caseworkers wearing two hats is universally recognized to be one of the biggest problems in the child welfare system. Caseworkers are expected to be both counselor and cop: to earn the trust of families while at the same time holding over them the awesome power to remove their children. The caseworkers we got to know acknowledged this inherent conflict in their roles, but all of them tried to manage it -- because they had to. They see themselves first as the advocates for children, and this responsibility to insure children's safety comes first.

Dorothy Roberts, in her book Shattered Bonds, talks about how the child welfare system is often compared to a pendulum: At one moment, it may favor the notion of "family preservation," where all efforts are made to keep children in their homes; and at the next moment, child safety, not family unity, drives the national agenda. Where are we now? Are we at a turning point?

The child welfare system is driven by scandal. Scandal drives policy; it drives funding; and too often, it drives practice. This means that when a child dies at the hands of her parents, the system tends to focus on getting more children out of their birth homes and into foster care -- the "child safety" agenda. When a child dies in foster care, the system swings more towards "family preservation" -- only removing children as a last resort. Thus, the pendulum that Roberts refers to.

In the late 1990s, partly as a result of several prominent child deaths at the hands of birth parents, the "child safety" agenda began to dominate the national agenda. Tougher, shorter time limits on birth parents make it easier to terminate parental rights and free children up for adoption. There is a widespread consensus that the safety of children is the most important concern, even when the rights of birth parents must be sacrificed. This consensus has been strengthened by a universal disdain for long-term foster care, and an eagerness to provide "permanence" for children in care. This permanence is usually cast in terms of adoption, not reunification. So it seems we are approaching one end of the pendulum.

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