I’ve written a fair amount about child welfare agencies and their caseworkers. Everything about the subject seems vexed and contradictory. It’s true that many children are abused and/or neglected in this country. The Administration for Children and Families collects data on child abuse and neglect and found that, for the last year of available data, there were about 900,000 such cases.
Of course, not all of those cases required intervention by child welfare authorities. But clearly, there’s enough abuse and neglect of children that someone needs to intervene in the best way possible.
That’s meant the government in the form of child welfare agencies and, not surprisingly, those agencies are underfunded for the job they’re tasked with doing. Caseworkers often deal with 50% more cases than industry protocols allow, and they’re not very well paid. The turnover of caseworkers is therefore high meaning that continuity of attention to individual children and their families is often lacking.
Then there’s the fact that, because child welfare agencies are creatures of government, caseworkers have de facto power over families and children that no one else has. That means that every contact with CPS, regardless of how minor, comes pre-packaged with the understanding that the caseworker can take the child from the parents. She (the vast majority of caseworkers are women) can do that any time for virtually any reason including her perception that the parents don’t pay her the proper respect.
CPS tends to dramatically overreach by taking children who aren’t at risk or do the opposite – ignoring children who are the victims of horrific abuse. Whatever the case, parents often view CPS with fear and resentment; they fear the power the caseworker wields and resent being made to kowtow to what often seems its arbitrary exercise.
Some knowledgeable critics of CPS argue that the money we spend on foster care could be better spent in many cases by providing needed services to parents. That could, in all but the most severe cases of abuse and dsyfunction, keep parents and children together and reduce the distrust with which parents approach caseworkers.
As I said, child welfare agencies present a confused picture, and this article muddles it a bit more (Houston Chronicle, 12/26/11). It seems that a fair number of CPS caseworkers come from “the system.” That is, children who’ve been through foster care often gravitate toward jobs with CPS. Without knowing the minutiae of that situation, it strikes me, as so much about CPS does, as both good and bad.
Obviously, children who were taken from their parents and placed in foster care grow up to be adults with an intimate knowledge of the system, whether for good or ill.
“I do what I do because of what happened to me,” said 23-year-old Megan Davis, a CPS caseworker in the intensive investigations unit in Harris County.Davis, it turns out, is one of many.
Davis said she and her twin sister were placed into CPS custody at age 7 after suffering physical abuse by their stepfather.
She recalls at least three caseworkers coming to her home to investigate her parents when she was a girl. The caseworker she remembers most is the one who made a second visit and finally removed the twins from the home.
Davis and her sister were fortunate enough to be placed in the same foster care home, and by the time they were 14, both had been adopted by the same family.
“I can honestly say she (the caseworker) saved me and my sister’s life,” Davis said. “It was the fact that she didn’t forget us. It was nice to finally be remembered.”
That experience not only led Davis to become a CPS caseworker herself but also shaped the way she works with the children assigned to her. For one thing, she says, it has taught her to spend time building a rapport with each child and to look for the same signs of abuse that she herself exhibited.
“It also always reminds me not to remove (children from parents’ custody) too quickly,” she said.
It is not uncommon for people who went through the system to find careers as adults in the agency or with other social service organizations, said Estella Olguin, CPS spokeswoman for the county.Written as it was during Christmas season, the article isn’t unduly inquisitive about the potential downsides of packing CPS with former foster kids, and there may not be any. But I do have concerns about the prospect of staffing CPS with the children of our most broken and dysfunctional homes. Those homes aren’t known for producing the best outcomes for children, and foster care is probably worse as a general rule. None of that means that individual children raised by the system can’t turn out perfectly well; of course they can. But are they the exception or the rule?
Certainly the statements made by the young women interviewed for the article suggest a strong interest in improving CPS practices to reflect their own experiences in the system. I certainly won’t argue with that, but they’re far from the only ones filling the ranks of caseworkers nationwide.
I’d like to know how many CPS employees were once themselves in foster care and how that colors their approach to the children they’re now tasked with serving. I’d like to know as well if those employees go about their jobs in substantially different ways from the ones who never lived in foster care. Do their childhood experiences have a beneficial effect on the system generally or do they tend to perpetuate the same practices and preconceptions that made up so much of their early lives?