Friday, March 18, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part XVIII

In response to Improving the Foster Care System - Part XVI, Process wrote:
One problem with these "Improving the Foster Care System" posts of yours is that you don't really know the system. Yes, you've had some experiences with it, and certainly you have some legitimate comments to make about that experience. But when you write these posts, you make assumptions about the way the system works that just aren't true, at least in my state.

The biggest mistake you make in these posts is that social workers make the decision to remove children. I know this isn’t the case in my state, and I can’t imagine that it is the case in any state—the individual liability would just be way too high. Instead, the decision is made by a group of people at different levels within the agency. And, although you must know this, you forget to mention in your posts that the legal system is also involved in all removals. Now, I’m not by any means suggesting that having the legal system involved makes everything right, but what I am telling you—reminding you, since there is no way you could not know this—is that there is a system of checks and balances in place that prevents removals from occurring simply at the whim of individual social workers.

Process actually wrote a much longer comment, much of which I will be addressing in future Improving the Foster Care System posts. She had a lot to say, much of which does not match our experiences or the way our local system works.

I should probably point out that I'm not just writing about the system from the perspective of a disgruntled former foster parent. FosterEema has worked from within the system, so she's seen firsthand how some decisions are made.

In our county, social workers very much do make the decision to remove a child, especially in after-hours situations. In our child's case, there was not a committee that made a reasoned and informed decision. Although the worker's supervisor was probably notified, the worker herself was the one to make the judgment call.

In our state, the law is very clear. Workers do not have to consult with their supervisor or the court to effect a removal if they feel there is reasonable cause to believe that a child is in danger. This alleged danger can include physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or neglect. Furthermore, there's nothing in our state's social services regulations that require a worker to get her supervisor's approval before acting. The social worker has to document why she removed the child, but she doesn't have to get her boss' okay before she does it.

In our state, and in most of the country, workers have something called absolute immunity which protects them from liability in the event that they make a bad call. Perhaps in other states workers exercise this immunity with a bit more caution, but in our area workers know that they can pretty much do what they like, as long as they stay within the confines of the law.

A social worker's immunity does not protect her from criminal prosecution in the event she crosses the line and does something illegal. Still, the threat of prosecution doesn't always keep social workers honest. In our case, we have documented evidence that unequivocally proves a worker committed perjury, but the Court opted to ignore her conduct.

As for the checks and balances that are supposed to be provided by the court system, the social worker doesn't have to file a dependency petition until 48 hours after the removal. By then, it's too late. The kids have already been taken, and the emotional damage has already been done.

It's fairly common for a social worker to remove a child and for that child to be returned to his or her birth family at the first court hearing. FosterEema has seen it happen with a number of her cases, and we remember getting a call about a potential foster placement, only to have the worker later call us back saying she wouldn't need the bed after all. As I recall, she grumbled quite a bit about the judge's "bad" decision to return the teen girl to her family.

I'm glad that, at least in Process' state, there is a system of checks and balances that prevents children from being removed in the first place. In our state, unfortunately, there is not. Here, we clearly have a system that removes the kids first, and asks questions later.

During the first 30 days a child is in foster care, there are a number of hearings held (typically at least three) to determine whether or not a child will stay in care. In a significant portion of these cases, the kids are returned during that initial 30-day period.

I have to ask the question, are kids better off for having spent 30 days in foster care, only to be returned home?

My answer to this, of course, is no. There's no way a child is going to be better off having been removed from his parents for a month and then returned. It's all well and good that the child made it back home, but the psychological damage has already been done. The entire family has been traumatized, and I don't see how this can be good for anyone, especially the kids.

So how do we improve this part of the foster care system? I think that we have to improve the system of checks and balances before a social worker swoops in and takes the kids. Cases should be reviewed, not only by workers and their supervisors, but by people who aren't routinely involved with the system. I think establishing a rotating volunteer review board of community members would help immensely. If people from outside the system get some transparency into what's going on, I believe things will change.

I also think that if community volunteers could see what's going on, there would be less opportunity for abuse. If community members could see that a mother was passing her drug tests, it would give the worker less wiggle room to lie in court and say that she wasn't. On the other hand, if they could see that a mother was messing up, it would increase people's confidence that the system was making good decisions. Having community oversight would mean that there would be less opportunity for social workers (and their managers) to abuse their power.

In the addition to the checks and balances provided by community oversight, the system could be improved by giving the state's Foster Care Ombudsman some teeth. When we received notice that Nasty Number Seven planned a removal, one of our first calls was to the Ombudsman's Office. There, we talked to a very nice and very sympathetic person who basically told us there was nothing she could do. She told me that she received calls all the time from foster children, birth parents and foster parents about out-of-control workers, but they had no enforcement powers at all. She said that they could call up individual workers or supervisors and advise, but in her experience that usually only made bad situations worse.

Now an ombudsman is supposed to be a trusted intermediary and a mediator, but if nothing she recommends is binding, there's not a whole lot of point to the office, is there?

Bottom line, if we want to improve the foster care system, we need to strengthen the checks and balances that prevent children from being taken into the foster care system in the first place. I think there are enough disturbing tales from unhappy foster care alumni that clearly document the misery of being placed in foster care. If you aren't convinced, go read Growing Up Lost or I Was a Foster Kid for a while, and see if they don't change your mind about how rotten the system is.

But really, strengthening checks and balances isn't just a win for a kids. It's a win for the system for two reasons: 1) it strengthens everyone's confidence that good decisions are being made, and 2) it potentially reduces the workload for everyone. If a kid isn't taken into care in the first place, it's one less case some worker has to handle.

And that, clearly, is a win for everyone.


  1. Process doesn't give nearly enough credit where credit is due. Although it is true that in many areas workers can't just remove kids on a drop of a dime, it is also true that a lot of weight is placed on their opinions, reports, testimony and lies.

    While it is certainly true that the judge may make the ultimate decision for removal, he's often basing his decision on the reports of the social workers. By the time it gets to court other service providers might be involved disputing the claims of the workers, but for some reason the workers keep their jobs without being discredited in any way.

    Social wreckers have way too much power. Even if they don't make the ultimate decisions, their opinions are relied heavily upon in court. More often than not, bad decisions are supported by many on a so called team, and many of these team members have never visited the home.

    Ever tried to complain about a social worker to her supervisor? It does no good because the supervisor is in place as a support system for the front line worker.

    Q: What's the difference between God and a Social Worker?

    A: God doesn't pretend to be a Social Worker.

  2. You are correct: workers do not have to get approval to remove a child, even in my state, in cases of very clear, immediate risk. And would you really want it any other way? A worker enters a home and finds the mother highly intoxicated, slurring, senseless, swaying on her feet—do you really want that worker to have to go back to the office and consult with a committee before removing the child? No, you want her to be able to get that child out of there. Fortunately, situations like that are rare. They do occur more frequently after hours, as you might imagine; but, in my state at least, after-hours workers have even more communication with supervisors than workers do during regular business hours.

    I really think your true complaint is about the subjective nature of the work. Subjectivity is particularly relevant to some cases of neglect. Take a dirty home, for example: home conditions that one worker may assess as marginal, another may consider completely unacceptable. And, in most cases, supervisors and managers are dependent on the worker’s assessment—that’s why the best supervisors demand detailed accounts from their workers, and try to meet with clients themselves as often as possible. But, there is no way to avoid subjectivity. This is true in any profession.

  3. Education and experience matter. In my opinion, every worker should be a masters-level, licensed social worker. That, of course, costs money; and, as you and everyone else in America knows, there isn’t any. Our current system is unsustainable. In my state, efforts are being made to reduce the number of families served by CPS by directing our limited resources to the children and families who are at the highest risk. I support this. One understanding that experience brings that education doesn’t is that, as you point out, children at lower levels of risk are better left at home than placed in foster care. As for the problems with the time frames of the legal system, well, to address that would be require another, separate lengthy comment.

    I have to disagree with your idea of involving community members in case-level decision-making. We have community members involved in some areas, and although their perspective in regard to the agency as a whole is valuable, when they are involved in case-level decision-making, their contributions are problematic, primarily because of their lack of familiarity with the complicated dynamics of a) at-risk families; b) the issues (drug use, mental health, trauma, domestic violence, etc.); and c) the system. Could they be trained to understand those complications? That would require them undergoing the education, training, and experience that good workers undergo. As is true in all fields, it is very difficult if not impossible to get a good grasp of it unless you live it for an extended period of time. And, speaking of subjectivity, community members bring their own biases to the table, biases that haven’t been affected at all by actually working with the families. In my experience, community members tend to be biased toward one extreme or the other: either they think that the lowest levels of risk warrant removal (the mother is smoking marijuana?! Get that child out of there!) or that high levels or risk are quickly and easily remediated (She provided a clean drug screen? Return the kids!).

    I appreciate your raising these issues, even as I disagree with you. It’s painful for me to read your diatribes against workers, as I think of the workers I supervise and how much they do for the children and families on their caseloads. But, reading your point of view does help me reflect on my own position relative to the work we need to do to improve.

  4. RE: >> It’s painful for me to read your diatribes against workers, as I think of the workers I supervise and how much they do for the children and families on their caseloads.


  5. Our County has recently implimented a CASA program. It is similar to the GAL's who are paid and have very high case loads except that a CASA is a community volunteer who takes a small amount of cases. The CASA is an advocate for the child best interest only and is a legal party to the case having access to discovery as well as current UA's etc. They certainly don't fix the system, but I can tell you that they can be very beneficial to the children involved. They are appointed at the first hearing so they aren't involved in the initial removal, but our state has also implimented a saftey standard system for removal that is very conservative. This is a good thing initially but these same standards are used for reunification and kids are going home to the same problems they left. A waste of time, money and emotional distress on everyones part.


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