From the desk of award-winning Honolulu Star Advertiser journalist, Rob Perez, who brought you the domestic violence “Crossing The Line” series in 2009 comes what is sure to be another shocking and revealing series, this time, on Hawaii’s controversial Child Welfare System (coincidentally, just in-time for the resurfacing of the infamous Peter Boy Kema case).
Child Welfare Services – more commonly known as CPS or Child Protective Services – and the controversies that arise from some of the cases always make me wince when I hear about them because I always feel initially conflicted. Having worked in and with CPS for so many years, I know the treatment models and social work practice methods they are trying to adhere to and follow which are actually good and sound principles. When the case follows a “textbook” path, the end result is truly amazing – there’s health and healing, reconciliation and recommitment – and in some cases, a relinquishment of parental rights BUT if handled correctly, even this worst case scenario can actually end up a win-win for all around.
When I worked with Intensive Home-Based Preventive Services in New York, the stress of the work was absolutely immense but what an equally immense privilege it was to be with families fighting their way back from the breaking point and triumphing! Crazy as this is going to sound, when you get to the win-win, CPS work is absolutely addictive so that’s why it just breaks my heart to hear of cases that cross the point of no return and go so south that no one in the family is left standing because it truly doesn’t have to be that way!
How can CPS cases end up so botched then? Professional human error and/or malpractice (ignorance/arrogance) to include corruption are some reasons but from the start, many CPS cases are doomed from the agency’s own current operating framework: social work vs the legal system and the murky middle in between.
Interpersonal abuse (of any kind) indicates relationship problems but at the same time, abuse of any kind is a crime; one approach involves healing the hurts and putting in mechanisms or resources to avoid more of the same in the future, while the other approach is more punitive with potentially long-term legal and social consequences.
Social workers go to Social Work school to be trained in that particular area of expertise while attorneys go to Law School to become proficient in theirs; like oil and water, the two professions don’t mix well – ie: one side’s goal is to reduce blame to avoid conflict while the other side’s goal is to assign blame for the results of conflict.
Although CPS started out “social working” child abuse cases the legal aspect of the cases has turned CPS into a quasi-legal entity, something it was not initially designed to do. The end result is social workers who end up serving in a very confusing dual role: social work law enforcement officer. Here’s what I mean:
You can’t help someone if you don’t know what the problem is, right? In order to find out what someone’s problem is, a social worker will need to get the client to talk, something clients don’t want to do with an absolute stranger who just walked into their house announcing himself/herself as a CWS Worker.
Here I feel bad for the CPS Worker: he or she has to find out what’s going on and there’s already a strike against him/her before he/she even knocks on the door because of CPS’s “bad rep”. From the client’s perspective: if a CPS Worker is coming to your home, chances are he/she is not catching you and your family at your best; clients are going to be stressed and can feel offended, embarrassed, awkward or angry at the intrusion. This is what a CPS Worker gets to walk into and they have to overcome all the hostility and defensiveness to assess if there really is a danger to a child.
To do this, they’re supposed to “join” with the clients (which is talking to put them at ease, building rapport). If the CPS Worker is successful, optimally he/she will get to the truth and the real story but here comes the twist: as a social worker, he/she would take that information to best figure out how to service the family (Child Protective SERVICES) but as a legal officer, he/she is bound to report criminal activity or crimes that have occurred which could result in charges and the removal of a child/ren.
When abuse has definitely occurred, sometimes the parents are able to acknowledge that it might be safer for the child to be out of the environment for awhile (which is where foster care comes in) so they can address the issues and problems that led to the abuse but in other instances, some parents feel tricked, deceived and taken advantage of after being completely honest only to have their child taken and placed into foster care. Insult to injury for the second type of case is that the social worker who “turned you in” is also going to be the social worker you’re going to have to work with if you want your child back.
Here I feel bad for the client: while the social worker is “just doing his/her job” he/she seems to forget that he/she has actually already betrayed and violated the client’s trust – not a good way to start any working relationship. Some CPS Workers “get” this and work to repair the damaged relationship with the client but others will take the client’s reactions to the betrayal personally and retaliate in-kind to show the client “whose boss”.
When this latter situation occurs, matters can go from bad to worse for the client because the social worker will not only be the one setting and determining the Service Plan (conditions for the child’s return) but he/she will also have the final say on whether the client has successfully met the goals or not. Worse is when the CPS Worker assigns services that are not legitimately needed or warranted. And worse is when the CPS Worker has botched something up and looks to scapegoat someone else for the error, especially and particularly in DV/CPS overlap cases. Some of the instances I’ve personally witnessed:
- The assignment of marriage counseling when there were no legitimate marital issues to address.
- An order to drug rehab when addiction was not a legitimate issue.
- Assigning family therapy services but denying a choice of provider and then keeping the child from those services.
- Being loaded down with so many services that employment is lost, placed in jeopardy or is impossible to attain/maintain (then citing “employment problems” as a risk factor)
- The expense of services making the family financially unstable, that actually created a stress factor where none existed previously.
- Informing a child (under 12) that the man he thought was his father isn’t and that his mother is purposefully keeping this information from him.
- “Returning” a child to the father she never knew who lives on the east coast; the man her mother successfully escaped from years before.
- Initiating regular visitations between a toddler and his father who was sitting in jail for killing the child’s mother. When the maternal grandmother asked why this was taking place she was told that “He (the father) didn’t do anything to the child”.
- Despite the expressed warning signs and safety concerns for the child, the CPS worker making decisions against the party who made a formal complaint against him/her.
- Not following up on legitimate safety concerns because of who the accused is.
- Excluding case relevant professionals and experts from Multi-Disciplinary Team Meetings (which determine the case direction in complex cases).
- Keeping a child in foster care despite the lack of evidence of abuse, the child recanting and the child repeatedly running away from foster care back to the parent.
Yes there are two sides to every story but chances are we won’t hear anything substantial or revealing in response to Mr. Perez’s articles because CWS will refer to “client confidentiality” that’ll render them “unable to respond”. Sadly they have yet to realize that confidentiality is the client’s right NOT the professional’s privilege.