Child Welfare Services

What would make a normally conforming person like Don Russell suddenly go off and do a front page rant on the forces of For Your Own Good? A sense of justice, probably.

Note: the editor does not consider himself to be an expert in CWS, but he knows a bit about it.

"When Republicans get elected they hire more cops. When Democrats get elected they hire more social workers. In the long run, social workers are more dangerous."

Last week’s Mountain Messenger carried an article (reprinted HERE) which was highly critical, even self righteously so, of one case currently in Sierra County Child Welfare Services. However, the piece reached beyond this one case and alleged that something is badly broken in the Child Welfare System.

It certainly has become broken. Repeatedly in recent months I’ve heard "the purpose of government is to keep the people safe". That certainly is not the purpose of government. Government can not keep us safe, but it can hound us in the name of safety.

That is what is happening with Child Welfare in the U.S., and especially in California, and absolutely in Sierra County. Once involved, the over-riding responsibility for the state is the "safety of the child". The state can, and often does, destroy the family, divorce children from their heritage and kin, in order to keep them safe. Technically, grandparents and other key family members still have a place in the child’s life, if they are comfortable with the idea, and often they are not. Many families have learned to write off kids taken by the system as though they had contracted a childhood illness and died. Legal fictions not withstanding, families are based on emotion, on trust, and on commonalties. Indeed, to try to offset the blatantly negative effects of foster care, the state, at the behest of the King in Washington, has struggled to create life-long relationships with healthy adults for foster kids, kind of a government transplanted family. Typically, it doesn’t graft too well.

The system is intended to work like this: the agency receives a "report". The "report" contains an "allegation". A referral is opened if the "allegation" is 1. about a child and a parent or caregiver; and 2. indicates a violation of the law regarding physical, emotional or sexual abuse or neglect, (nearly everything that happens in a family can be seen as falling into one of those categories); OR 3. indicates a high likelihood that one of those forms of abuse MIGHT occur. This stage is generally called "emergency response". If the referral is not closed, then depending on the nature of the allegation and the age of the child, the referral might be assigned either immediate or 10-day response time. For example, an allegation of a teen not finding enough food in the home might be investigated in ten days; a child in the hospital with allegations of physical or sexual abuse would be an immediate investigation.

Next is investigation, which should contain whatever police reports were generated regarding the child, and reports from caregivers paid or kin, and information from adults who may know about the allegation, particularly those in the family or the parents of friends of the children. Oh, and information from the child and parent or guardian, though these are usually suspect. Children, it turns out, often love their parents, and even though they might be drug addicted or a little crazy, very often they would prefer to be with them, and likely with extended family, than with clean, caring strangers. As a result, smart children often lie to social workers, or, better yet, say nothing at all. Parents are generally assumed to be somewhat untrustworthy, and the bigger the trouble, the less they are trusted.

The other element of the system which is broken is the interpretation of the law. For example, the legislators originally indicated that physical abuse would cause "injury". For most people, injury means "wound" or "harm" or "damage". For social workers and mandated reporters (anyone who works with kids; postmen; film developers), "injury" has come to mean a "mark". If a stressed and over-worked parent gets impatient and backhands a mouthy teen, that is now a prison offence. That’s a system that’s broken.

After the investigation, the social worker will find the allegation, and other allegations which might have appeared during the course of investigation, to be substantiated, unfounded, or more commonly, inconclusive.

It is interesting to note that adults having an allegation of child abuse which is found to be "inconclusive" can be, and often are, prevented from jobs working with children. It makes little sense, for example, to be both a parent and a teacher since one’s role as parent can easily destroy one’s career as teacher.

If the allegation or subsequent allegations are substantiated, either the social worker or the family will make necessary changes so the child can safely remain home, or the child must be "removed".

The term "removed" here serves very much like the term "rendition" did during the Iraq War. The children are taken, sometimes literally torn screaming from the parents’ arms, and always with a running litany from the social worker on how everything will be fine.

The removed child or children do not now belong to the parent or family, but to the court, for however brief or long their dependency. The court is not a proper criminal court, it is deemed "civil". The court is pretending or at least claiming to be acting on behalf the child, though the child has given no such permission. Indeed, the child has an attorney, but the attorney can’t insist on the child’s behalf that the child be sent home, so is of very little practical use.


It needs to be said that in most counties in California, most reports are not investigated, and of those which are investigated, many are closed because the allegation is unfounded, or because the allegation, if true, wouldn’t support a significant risk to the child. Many referrals are closed simply through social worker intervention using education and other services to change something about the way the family does things. It might be a lock on the bathroom or bedroom doors, or a hook up to the local food bank, or a trip to the dentist to take care of bottle rot (tooth and gum decay caused by being left "propped" with a bottle of juice or milk), or an admonition to Junior that he’ll go to "Juvi" if he grabs his sister like that again. The social worker can provide services in a referral for 30 days.

Another approach to "front end services" or preventing the need for CWS involvement is "differential response". This allows the agency to refer the family to a support agency, typically a "family resource center" who provides information and support. It is a sound approach and does benefit families without CWS involvement.

 Social workers do help families; some children are living in nightmarish conditions, some physical and sexual abuse goes on for years. It isn’t that we don’t need CWS, it’s that we need to bring it back to realistic definitions and expectations. Many families simply have hard times for awhile, and social work professionals can help them get back on their feet. At some point, though, they simply "help" too much.

If the risk to the child can’t be mitigated that way, the referral goes to a case. Many cases are "voluntary". This means that the family wants the help of CWS, and they generally agree to services. Children are almost never removed on voluntary cases, meaning the cases are "family maintenance". There are traditionally two kinds of "voluntary" cases.

In one, the family just needs some help. Instances that might bring a family in for this kind of help are cases where one parent leaves, is imprisoned, or dies, and the family system needs a tune-up and the head of household needs daycare, food stamps and a little counseling. If the allegation is because the parent or guardian is drug addicted or mildly unconventional but can function with a little help and the right meds, a voluntary case might be used.

In the second, the social worker feels there is something amiss, but the results of the investigation don’t provide enough evidence (and not much is required) to pull the kids or get the court involved. In this instance, the social worker hopes that either services provided will solve the risk, or the true depth of the problem will emerge once the social worker is in the home providing services.

Most cases that "go to court" meaning the child has become or will become a dependent of the court, are "family reunification" cases, meaning the kid has been taken. After a certain amount of time of parents receiving "services" the child might be sent home but the judge will maintain the child as a dependent, simply placed with the parents. In general, though, the county, and the court, should be eager to drop dependency as soon as possible, meaning the parent has accomplished the necessary tasks to safely have their child at home. As with every contract, the county also has a responsibility, and if the social worker fails to correctly evaluate the family or the parents, or fails to identify appropriate risks, or fails to prescribe and provide the necessary services, the case can, if the parent is smart and lucky enough to have an actually attorney, turn sideways in the craw of the system and the county can hemorrhage.

When the child is placed for family reunification, it also automatically begins the process for adoption. This is called "concurrent planing" and it is an idea which flies in the face of what we know to be humanness and human investment. In a concurrent placement, the social worker and foster parent simultaneously try to help the parent get the kid back, and plan to take the kid away forever.

The rationale here, in addition to the "safety" of the child, is that the government doesn’t want to pay forever for parents to get it right. If they don’t get it in six months or a year they’re busted and no more money will be spent on them. The kid will be placed with a decent family. The primary justification for this is that kids need a stable home as soon as possible. "Childhood is brief" is the rationale.

Other people have rights when a child is removed, and if the child is a Native American with known tribal affiliation, the Indian Child Welfare Act might apply, and the identified tribe may choose to intervene in some way, if the child becomes a dependent. Some tribes have their own child services, and can place the child. The tribe might do other things, including trying to intercede for the parents, or even prescribing tribal treatments for some parent inadequacies.

If the child has special needs or behavioral issues, there are levels of foster care, including "group homes." Each placement type change must be approved by a judge; all psych meds must be approved by a judge and so do other key changes in the child’s wellbeing. Schools are instructed to provide services to foster children and the educational status might be subject to input.

Whatever the disposition, as long as the agency intends to provide services to the parent, a "case plan" is created. The "case" is a contract between the county and the parent. If the parent does everything required, they might even get their kids back, or get the social worker off their back.

Ideally, the case carrying social worker should only oversee services, providing mostly administrative functions. If the parent is drug addicted, they get drug and alcohol services. If they’re a little or only temporarily unbalanced, mental health services. Sloppy pigs? Housekeeping services. Got a thing for mean guys? Empowerment services. Got a hair trigger? The dreaded "anger management services". The social worker is charged primarily with keeping track of the services, evaluating the progress of the parents, and evaluating the home, parents and children with an eye toward returning the children, or sending them to "permanent placement". This means the kid is probably never going home.

It is presumed that, since the foster care providers are decent, usually middle or upper working class people, and since they have been "screened" by the state, they must be better parents than the biological parents. Standards of behavior and even speech for the foster care provider are very high.

Regardless, many children "lose their cherry," at least figuratively in foster care. Like prison, foster care can become a school for the behaviors the state wants to discourage. Some children like foster care and build life-long relationships with foster parents, but in many more instances foster care is a "soft prison." I once heard a foster kid joke that "my mom got drunk and they put me in jail." This is one reason so many foster kids end up "in the wind." Some older foster kids take off for weeks at a time, only to return to CWS to get cleaned up, outfitted with clothes and spend a little time making connections in school before they leave again. Many foster children are institutionalized, meaning they have been taken care of for so long that when they are released at 18 they can’t care for themselves. The number of foster kids who go to jail or prison as adults is very high, and social planners like to blame adults, but in many instances, it is because foster life is not stable. A foster kid, if they are smart, will form their bonds with other foster kids, who become a kind of nebulous family long after foster care has ended.

Foster parents often make a tidy living out of caring for the court’s children. This is not to suggest that no foster parents care about the children in their care, but there is no escaping the fact that they are being paid to take and raise kids.  

Ideally, a dependent child will be adopted, and the state has services for people who adopt children with special needs.

Finally, all these services, the foster care, the drug testing, the sessions with cut-rate counselors, the court sessions, these aren’t free. If the parents have the misfortune to have a job or own property, they’ll pay for the services, often to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

Child welfare services, the culture of the social worker, and the court system that should oversee it, compose a special world where common, everyday things take on new meaning, and where the experiences and values of the parent might not be good enough for the government to allow them to parent.

The Social Worker’s World

The social worker lives in a special world on many levels. Simply the hierarchy in the department can be balkanizing. Most run-of-the-line social workers are SW3; that’s the level that does most work. Referrals are often investigated by SW3s. A typical way to achieve this most often requires a BA degree in social work, CWS training and continuing training as well as experience. Up the food chain are the SW4s, most of whom have a graduate degree in social work (MSW) or psychology. Among the SW4s are specialists, all of which earn more money. They have continuing education. Up from there are the administrators, many of whom began delivering service, but got smart and went into admin.

The social worker is under scrutiny, too. A good department has, for every ten or so social workers, a social work supervisor (most likely a MSW with certificates or experience), at least 50% SW4s, and a stable of SW3s with some SW2s gaining experience.

In most counties the supervisor and even admin can "survey" the social worker’s caseload from their desk. In efficient counties weekly and monthly reports are gathered from the CWS/CMS application which show how each social worker’s referral/case load looks, where each case or referral is in the process, and how long it has taken the social worker to achieve significant milestones.

The reports can be used as a basis for increased supervision or even administrative punishment.

Likewise, the state performs a similar service by prying into the cases of the county, and the states are responsible to meet the federal guidelines using that same data.

The next big issue for social workers is the "60 Minutes Factor." No social worker, and no department, wants a kid in a case to be killed by a parent, and have that fact discovered by the media. That is the worst thing that can happen, because the public will be outraged, and the court might reprimand, and the state might investigate.

60 minutes is copyrighted by CBS

On the other hand, the media very rarely becomes outraged when children are taken, parents called to court, and the family’s finances decimated over a social worker error.

The Case of the Mountain Messenger piece is the exception.

The social worker is largely protected from discovery, though, because the records are protected by the court, since there are minors involved.

This means that everything in the case is protected. This means that the social worker, and even the parents, are prevented from talking to the press, or the community. This means there is no public oversight.

The World of the Parent

The parent is generally left without protection. There is a burden of proof in dependency court, but it isn’t much. To take the child, almost no evidence is required. To keep the kid, there is a larger burden. To sever parental rights and give the child to new parents takes a bit more.

In practice, though, the county council typically writes the court action up as the social worker indicates, checking mostly for procedural errors, and it is a rare judge indeed who will over-ride the social worker completely.

The parent would have to get a qualified attorney at once, and most parents can’t do that, nor do they know to. Often, they feel their best chance to get the kids back is to do what they are told, as if the children were held by a common kidnapper.

Often times the parent will want the child to be placed with a relative, but increasingly, this is a no go either because the relative can’t prove a clean history and a "proper" place for the kid, or more likely, the relatives simply don’t want CWS in their lives. If they have children in the house, they too will be under increased scrutiny.

In the end, the parent has to satisfy the social worker, because it is the social worker who decides what to call things. As is almost always the case with a bureaucratic world, the power to name things is the power to change lives. A parent who drinks might be fine if the social worker decides they drink moderately, have strong boundaries about childhood drinking and drug use, and their drinking doesn’t effect the kid. However a tea totaller social worker, or conversely, one who has demons of alcoholism of their own, might decide that any drinking is a problem. Having once decided that, it is easy to find "proof," particularly if the person saves their aluminum cans for a few weeks. This power is a problem since there is no public oversight. Indeed, drinking, drug use and even illegal behavior is not supposed to necessarily be the purview of the social worker, only if it can be proved to the court that the behavior directly puts the kid at risk. However, it is hardly difficult to demonstrate to any true believer in government intervention that any of those behaviors harm the child, if only in some esoteric way.

The powerlessness of parents against the "naming" power of the state is one reason why home school groups often have "CWS training" to teach parents and children how to protect themselves from CWS questioning. Groups have sprung up in communities to help members support each other. Fathers, in particular, are susceptible to CWS. Indeed, there is a colloquialism in some CWS agencies called a "male-ectomy" where the boyfriend, stepfather or occasionally father are sacrificed so the rest of the family can stay together. Domestic violence is a frequent allegation responsible for such an operation, since domestic violence has recently come to be considered "child abuse".

The Role of the Court

The judge is supposed to represent the state interest in the safety of the child, but also to represent almost the only recourse of public control over CWS in the community. In truth, just as no social worker wants to have a kid die in her caseload, no judge wants a kid she or he sent home to die at home. There is very little motivation for the judge to over-ride the social worker. Typically, such judges satisfy themselves with making sure the paperwork is in order, and that all the steps have been satisfactorily accomplished. The judge may send the social worker back for more of this or that, or insist on this or that risk and so imply services, but generally the judge doesn’t say "you know, a couple of beers at night is fine with me, just stay off the road and don’t drive drunk with your kids in the car." Usually, the social worker is presumed to be an expert, and if the parents want to over-ride the social worker, they need to be able to afford an expert with a bigger degree.

Most people don’t know, or can’t afford, such experts.

The World of the Child

The child is in the most miserable of all situations. Often used as evidence against their families, children are "asked" and "consulted" until their wishes are subtly changed to the needs of the agency. It is traumatic to be removed, terrifying to see parents hauled away in cuffs, destabilizing to be thrust with strangers, often not once but repeatedly. Foster kids often ask about parents, but they have to be careful about what they say about foster care providers. Some children actually seek help, hoping that someone can just make dad drink less, or mom not hit so often, and are horrified to find that they have almost nothing to say, that on their word, the system has snatched them and violated their family, but their simple desires are blurred by the span of time and the involvement of so many different people: lawyers, judges, foster parents, counselors, foster kids, social workers, and even cops.

When the ordeal is done trust within the family is damaged. Kids know they can "call CWS" if the parent is too demanding or attempts to punish them. Dis-empowerment of parents is a natural consequence of having the state intrude on the family.

On various social indexes from the ability to form long term relationships, the likelihood of completing school, the probability of involvement with the criminal justice system, there are not generally found to be better for foster kids than for kids left in troubling circumstances.

There are extreme instances; parents are sometimes violent, "boyfriends" are sometimes molesters, parents are sometimes too drug addicted to parent. Kids in those instances need help, but not the mastication the system often inflicts.

The Role of the Public

Most people are trained by "Gee Whiz" media (the 60 Minutes effect) to be horrified at the terrible experiences of children. In truth, life often does suck for children, just as it does for adults. There is an expectation in the public even as there is in the cultural mythology of social work, that parents should behave a certain way.

The public is often upset with the way things "appear". They often disapprove of women who have children out of wedlock, particularly if they do so with different fathers. People generally disapprove of mothers drinking. People don’t like to see naked or dirty children in the yard. Nearly everyone disapproves of shouting. The wealthy might shout, their walls are thick, their yards are wide, but when you live in an aluminum trailer in a low rent park, you don't get to yell.

Most people would agree, these things aren't pleasant, but do they reach the point where the state should get involved? Is this the land of the free we want to live in? Shall we protect the child to the detriment of the family, only to ignore the kid when he or she finally turns 18? At this point, aren't we asking the government to violate the family's right to life and liberty, based on our comfort level?

There are a whole lot of things decent folks don’t approve of, especially in others (their own vices are understandable).

Other folks worry about their own goods. Those little urchins growing up without a decent ma are likely to eventually break into your garage looking for money for drugs. This rationale is largely responsible for the Adoptions and Safe Families act, a federal act which brought a sea change. The state would not spend a great deal of money and time on parents anymore. Parents have six months to get it together or lose their kids; 12 months at the most.

With the public worried about the little kids next door taking their car stereo, or their slut mom setting a bad example for the neighborhood high school girls, and the judges attempting not to presume on the expertise of the social worker, and the social worker and department concerned about how their statistics look in the application, there is practically nobody to stand up for the family. No where in this chain of public money and authority is anyone suggesting that maybe fate decides who a kid needs as parents, or that kids might have the right to self-determination instead of just "safety". The whole machinery hangs on everyone’s expectation of how families should look and how each player looks in the worst case scenario, and there is nobody to protest a social worker who has poor supervision and insufficient education or a system which cares more for its own continuation than it does for those misfortunate enough to fall in their grasp, and not wealthy enough to escape.

What can be done?

The public needs to realize that the government generally can’t actually help as we’d like. Most attempts are fumbled, and the people involved just learn how to manipulate the system to stay alive. Having CWS invade a family is a trauma similar to a serious illness or divorce, even if the court isn’t involved. Once the seal of privacy and trust for the family is broken, no amount of family counseling can really replace it. Families are often divided forever.

These are called iatrogenic effects. The term "iatrogenic" literally means "from the healer," and it originally referred to the unintended complications of medical procedures, but now the terms refers to any of the unfortunate consequences of involvement by "helpers." The social worker is not required to consider the possibility of such effects, only the safety of the child and the stability of the placement.

The public also needs to have more direct oversight. Agency supervisors and judges are simply not heavily motivated to err on the side of the natural family. They are allowed to be myopic about their intervention, which means they are largely allowed to overlook the negative effects on the kids and the family of intervention. There needs to be someone else, someone who is not motivated by retirement, or the need for re-election.

We also have to bring some reason and reality back to CWS. We have to insist that "injury" means something serious, not a welt on the butt that the social worker has to rush to see before it disappears. It’s an extension of the belief that putting your hand on someone’s shoulder automatically constitutes "assault". Certainly backhanding a teen is not the best method of on going parenting, but on occasion it works like nothing else, as many of us who are now happy and confident adults can attest. Spanking teaches that hitting is OK. We all know there are a lot of problems when parents use force on their children to get obedience, but let’s consider two things.

First, not only do loving parents struggle to teach their children right from wrong, the state makes it illegal not to do so. The state doesn’t provide the means (attend a "parenting class sometime"), only the social and legal requirement. Lots of good folks were raised by loving parents who occasionally spanked or even switched.


Secondly, let’s not forget that the state uses force all the time. Deny the state’s right to force enough, and you’ll die for it. The state uses force when it rips children from their parents. All of that is violence, all of that is force.

Don Russell clearly believes that CWS is at a crisis point in the county, and others agree. I suspect the system has features which incline participants to become increasingly oppressive because of the nature of the bureaucracy they inhabit and the culture they create among themselves at meetings, trainings, and joint venues. Like a family that has spent too much time in secrecy, Child Welfare Services needs the fresh air and strong light of public scrutiny.

The Board of Supervisors is surprisingly powerless to oversee the department on such matters, unless a lawsuit is offered. Most often, rather than intending to moderate child welfare services, supervisors and others will cajole CWS to get more involved than the law intends.
The Grand Jury might be one venue for such a refreshing public view.

Public participation in CWS is vitally important, and the only way to restore sense to the way our families are treated. Sierra is a small county. Let’s see what we can do working on the problem together.

Then, if that doesn’t work, then, as a community, we’ll try something else.

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