March 1, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Richard Wexler is at it again. Here he brings his wealth of knowledge and 40 years of experience reporting on the doings of child welfare agencies to bear on the issue of caseworkers taking too many kids into foster care (Youth Today, 2/22/17). Unsurprisingly, his piece is well worth the read.
Wexler’s point is simple - child welfare agencies strongly encourage caseworkers to take children from parents and place them in foster care. As I’ve said many times before, they do that because it’s what keeps alive the flow of dollars to states from Washington. But Wexler focusses not on the agency, but on individual caseworkers. They err on the side of taking children because that’s how they keep their jobs. By contrast, if they fail to intervene in a family and the child is abused or neglected, the caseworker is in trouble. Given that, it’s an easy decision to make.
One Philadelphia caseworker testified to exactly that.
But one of the things caseworkers often say is just not true. Caseworkers often claim they are “damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t.” But when it comes to taking away children, caseworkers are only damned if they don’t. It’s one of the reasons so many children are needlessly consigned to the chaos of foster care.
Now, a leader of a union representing caseworkers has admitted as much.
It happened last June when a committee of the Philadelphia City Council examined problems at the Department of Human Services, the agency that runs child welfare in the city. Among the issues: the fact that Philadelphia takes away children at one of the highest rates of any big city…
Usually at hearings such as the one in Philadelphia, caseworkers and agency chiefs offer up bland boilerplate about how they really, truly hate to take away children and only do it as a last resort — almost always adding that they’re “damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”
But this time Vanessa Fields, vice president of District Council 47 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, cut right through all that b.s. With commendable candor, she declared:
“Workers are afraid that they're going to be disciplined if anything goes wrong on a case. So their thing is, Well, I'm just going to take the kid out of the home and put them in care. That way, I don't have to worry about being written up or disciplined because I left the children in the home and something happened to them. … You place that kid outside of that home, because you do not want to be in a situation where you left a child in a home and something happened to them.”
It’s like a case I reported on out of Houston six years ago. There, a family had temporarily lost their home and moved into a mini-warehouse. That may sound like poor accommodations, but the place was over 5,000 square feet, had Internet access, all the family’s furniture, electricity and the like. What it didn’t have was running water or a bathroom, but those were available just across the driveway. The CPS caseworker who took the two children candidly told the press that she’d done so because her supervisor would have been none too pleased if she’d left the kids where they were. No abuse or neglect was even alleged, only the potential for discipline by a superior at CPS.
Of course in order to face that sort of discipline, the agency must have had a policy that erred on the side of taking kids from their parents, and clearly, the caseworker knew it.
But surely that’s just one side to the coin; surely caseworkers face similar discipline if they take children unnecessarily or if kids are abused or neglected in foster care, right?
As interesting as what Fields said is what she did not say. She expressed no fear of discipline for taking away too many children. Nor should she. In 40 years of following child welfare I have never seen a caseworker fired, demoted, suspended or even slapped on the wrist for that.
But what about the law? CPS agencies can be sued, as can caseworkers. Doesn’t that provide some certainty that caseworkers won’t take kids unnecessarily?
On the rare occasion when a family harmed this way brings a civil suit, caseworkers have “qualified immunity.” In layman’s terms that means they’re immune from damages unless they do something incredibly malicious or incredibly stupid. In one case, a worker actually claimed what amounted to a constitutional right to lie.
I and others have reported on that case and all will be relieved to know that there is no constitutional right to lie under oath in the State of California, despite Orange County caseworker Marcia Vreeken’s best efforts. CPS agencies can be sued if caseworkers lie and damages result. On the other hand, what Vreeken’s case also suggests is that, whatever the courts may think, however reprehensible a jury may find that behavior, child welfare agencies beg to differ.
Fortunately, that claim [of a right to lie] failed, but the worker in question wasn’t fired. She was promoted.
The point is clear: a caseworker can behave illegally in the course of taking a child and fear no discipline. But if he/she fails to take a child, even from parents who are neither abusive nor neglectful but have simply fallen on hard times, then the wrath of the agency is sure to follow. In short, agency policy, as expressed, not in words, but in actions, contradicts both the law and the stated policy of family preservation.
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