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NOTE: This article contains descriptions of child abuse.
I recently took a kid to this hole in the wall pizza joint where I used to take dates to impress them with my vast knowledge of the city’s underrated food. It blew his mind. He was so impressed that he took a picture of the menu. Turns out my secret restaurant knowledge works on kids, too.
After we had pizza, I did not take him home. Instead we got in the car and I took him to one of our city’s youth shelters. He was in the custody of the state and we could not find a foster home. In the two weeks that I had him in custody, he was in five different homes that I can remember (including two shelters), none for more than a couple of nights and some more than once.
As the social worker who had taken him into state custody, I was responsible for him when we couldn't find a foster home ("placement") for that night. My job was to pick him up in the morning and to take him to school. On one occasion shelter staff asked me to take him during the day on a weekend. So I took him to eat wings and watch baseball.
I am a social worker and I was in child protective services. It is not like what you see on "Law and Order." We do not cackle while we grab wailing kids from the arms of screaming parents. We do not ineptly disappear for months on end while our kids rot in some faraway foster home that nobody seems to be able to locate. We do not get rich “snatching babies” and we do not get commission for each kid we take. What we do is navigate an understaffed, underfunded, and completely misunderstood system in order to do the best we can by the most vulnerable kids (and parents) that we have.
Ever since I was a little kid (a little kid who watched a lot of "Judging Amy"), I wanted to work in CPS. I thought Amy’s mom was the baddest bitch on the planet the way she went to bat for her families. I wanted to be her when I grew up. (My mother wanted me to go to law school and be Amy.)
When I was in grad school, I immediately began interning at CPS. During my interview for the internship, the social worker who would become my supervisor asked me if I was aware there would be child abuse involved. I stared blankly at him and told him I understood.
And boy, is there child abuse. There are babies with skull fractures. There are toddlers with tiny little lifetimes of healed fractures. There are newborns abandoned at the hospital. There is the ever-present hat trick of substance abuse, domestic violence, and mental health, and the families who just really, really need help. There are teenagers raped by mom’s boyfriends and thrown out of the house for “stealing” the boyfriends. There are parents with intellectual disabilities who, no matter how hard they try, cannot do it alone. There is the sinking realization that if you scratch the surface of a “dirty house” neglect case, there is something much more serious underneath. There is the multigenerational abuse, the abuse so entrenched in families that we cannot have the grandparents care for the children while the parents are in treatment because the grandparents have child abuse charges from when the parents were little. There are grandparents telling parents they need to just get over being molested because it happened to them too and they turned out just fine.
And, hopefully not too often, there are the fatalities. The ones where you shut your office door and you cry, because you do not know what else to do because a kid died and kids aren’t supposed to die. The ones where maybe the family did have a history with CPS, but there was nothing tangible enough for you to base a legal case on but you knew there was something and you wanted to scream but I know this is something, I just know it, but I can’t prove it, but since you couldn’t prove it you couldn’t do anything and now a kid is dead.
The ones where the family doesn’t have a history because they stayed under the radar and never sent their kids to school and never took their kids to the doctor and never had early intervention and there was never one single eye on those kids outside the family and so no one ever knew and now a kid is dead. The ones where the family had some sort of horrible freak accident like rolling over onto the baby while sleeping or just that one time not securing medication that the baby picked up off the floor and ate or leaving the baby in the hot car and now a kid is dead. I don’t know how to make sense of those. I don’t think any of us do, not even the lifers, the supervisors, the management. But you can feel it in the office hallway. And it feels like shit.
Sometimes we have to take the kids. Usually we don’t –- only about half of all reports are investigated, about a fifth of those investigations result in a substantiated allegation, and a tiny number of those substantiations result in a kid being removed from their home. And it’s hard to take a kid. It’s really damn hard to take a kid and it should be hard to take a kid because it’s serious and we shouldn’t be doing it all willy nilly. Foster care is serious. Treatment plans are serious. Court hearings are serious. Submitting an affidavit swearing that a child cannot be kept safe in the care of their parents is serious. Going up to the witness stand and testifying that someone abused and/or neglected their child while they and their attorney are staring at you is serious.
I’m glad we can’t just do what they show on TV, which is take a kid the second the report alleging abuse or neglect comes in and terminate the parents’ rights three days later. (I wish TV would stop portraying it like this, by the way. It keeps people from calling because they think calling is somehow automatically going to result in the kid being removed and immediately adopted.)
But sometimes it’s hard to take a kid and then when you finally have something you can take to court on this kid who is now a teenager, it all unfolds and you realize you are 15 years too late. You read and re-read through 15 years of case narratives and investigation studies and one or two 48-hour holds that ended in custody being released back to the parents and you think to yourself, We did this. We all, over the last 15 years, did this. We couldn’t help this kid and how many extra beatings, how many extra rapes did this kid endure since we’ve known about this family? You drive yourself crazy going over every interaction you ever had with the family, with the schools, with the other providers who worked with the family wondering what you missed. You look through the case narratives and see that the people who taught you how to do your job, the people you regard as your role models have also worked with this family and they couldn’t find anything to take to court either.
It is a horrible, miserable, all-consuming despair. You question yourself, your work with the family, your work with other families, and pretty much everything up to and including your career choice. You feel responsible for the kid you see in front of you, the kid clearly suffering from a lifetime of abuse and neglect, this kid whose life might have maybe been different, if only. You play “if only” a lot.
Today, I was at the post office, and “Don’t Stop Believing” came on the radio. I started to cry and let the guy behind me in line go ahead. My pizza place kid had played it in the car on the way from a different dinner to a different foster home. He sang along and asked me to sing with him. I circled the block of the foster home until the song was over and then I dropped him off. I have no idea where he is today and I have no idea how he is doing. And it kills me.
I left that job soon after working with my pizza place kid, and it had nothing to do with the families or even with the child abuse. It is damn near impossible to navigate the system from the inside (understaffing, underfunding, zero cooperation between agencies who need to be cooperating to serve families, management that ranged from unsupportive to straight up unethical and abusive) and I felt like I could best serve my kids and their parents from another role. It happens a lot.
They tell us to practice self-care. For me, self-care had to mean leaving.
Anonymous is a social worker who would like you to find out more about becoming a foster parent by contacting your local child welfare agency.