God Help the Children of The Poor

I feel compelled to call upon my own experiences as a worker in Emergency Children’s Services (ECS) – the nighttime, weekend and holiday division of New York’s Child Protective Agency Administration for Children’s Services (ACS )- in addressing the matter of the formation of public perceptions of this work. Specifically as a veteran and current ECS worker I am concerned with and will address the influence Marc Parent exercises through his book Turning Stones, and through his "television persona."

Marc Parent says that good CPS workers will do good case work regardless of the system they work within. (Parent, M. 1996 and 1998 p. 375.) A burned out worker is not a good worker, though (s)he might have been one and might become one again. Cynical, emotionally detached and tired workers cannot properly serve at risk children, their clients. Parent is wrong in that a bad system will turn a good worker into a bad one. (And too many burned out workers and staff will burn out an organization.)

Good, dedicated Child Protective workers need to advocate for themselves and for their clients at every possible turn, be it in the office or in the realm of politics and public opinion.

Competency is more than education. It encompasses dedication and beliefs:

Since the late 1970’s The Office on Child Abuse and Neglect (OCAN)of the Children’s Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has provided a Child Abuse and Neglect User Manual Series meant to provide guidance and understanding about child maltreatment for professionals and community members. In the most recent edition of the publication Child Protective Services: A Guide for Caseworkers, in Chapter Two the authors state Developing CPS caseworker competence is an ongoing process. Caseworkers build competence through education, training, experience, and supervision. (DePanfilis, D. and Salus, M. No date).

The authors define caseworker competency as demonstrated professional behaviors based on the knowledge, skills, personal qualities, and values a person holds.

At the very top of the list of attributes that define competence, even before any items defined as Core Knowledge the authors of the Guide for Caseworkers put Core Values that include the following Belief that:

– All people have a reservoir of untapped, renewable, and expandable abilities (mental, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual) that can be used to facilitate change.

– Each child has a right to a permanent family.

– Each child and family member should be empowered to work toward his or her own needs and goals.

Commitment to:

– Using a strength-based, child-centered, family-focused practice.

– Assuring the safety of children in the context of their family.

– Practicing complete confidentiality.

– Ensuring accountability and an end-results orientation.

– Implementing quality professional practice.

– Continuing pursuit of knowledge and skills to effectively accomplish the mission of CPS as well as Respect for:

– Persons of diverse racial, religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, and a belief that there is strength in diversity.

– Each person’s dignity, individuality, and right to self-determination.

Other listed attributes of the competent child protective worker include persistence in doing the work, ability to take decisive and appropriate action, and to analyze complex situations. The competent child protective worker has aptitudes for listening, flexibility and empowerment of others to sustain gains and use family and community supports.

These are perhaps newly recognized attributes of the competent child protective worker that reflect more than formal educational achievements – they speak of maturity and commitment, and experience in the work itself as well as a belief system that implies a respect for the client.

The fundamental attribute of the competent Child Protective Worker is a true belief in the rightness of what (s)he does for a living, and that it is more than a job.

Worker burnout defined:

The Maslach Burnout Inventory defines the burnout syndrome as being of three dimensions that are characterized by Emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (cynicism toward clients) and (‘the tendency to evaluate oneself negatively, particularly with regard to one’s work with clients’) (Maslach & Jackson as cited in Schaufeli, Enzmann et al., 1993, p. 200 cited in Stalker, C. and Harvey, C.. October 2002.) Burnout is generally defined as consisting of exhaustion, cynicism and a diminished sense of professional efficacy. Many burned out workers who remain at their jobs communicate uncaring and devaluing attitudes toward vulnerable children and families, the consequences are serious indeed. (Stalker, C. and Harvey C. October 2002 pp. 2,3.)

When workers are burned out and leave jobs they do damage to Social Service Organizations:

Social Service organizations rely upon their human capital, – the managers, supervisors and workers. They rely on their staffs. "High turnover in such organizations is likely to be a significant depletion of productive capacity and decreased organizational effectiveness . . . important decisions may be delayed when turnover requires case reassignments. Thus a high turnover rate among caseworkers can be expected not only to reduce the quality of service provided by the agency but also to have a negative impact on the well-being of the ‘product’ of the agency — the children under its care and protection. "(Balfour D and Neff, D. 1993 p. 1).

Politicization and press sensationalism feed worker burnout:

Balfour and Neff also speak of the deleterious effect of increased scrutiny from the press and political sponsors in the wake of a highly publicized tragedy or failure of a social service organization, causing "a negative environment for the organization, increase tension among the family, friends, and community of its caseworkers, and contribute to instability and turnover in an agency’s caseworker population." ( Balfour and Neff citing Fryer, Miyoshi and Thomas, 1990 ).

Can an organization be burned out? :

ACS in its 1996 reform plan discusses its own culture. It is a culture that in some ways matches or mimics the symptoms of a burned out CPS worker. (Or perhaps it is the burned out CPS worker who matches and mimics the organizational culture.):

"Cultural Obstacles to Change

… there are numerous and deeply rooted cultural obstacles to transforming ACS into a results-focused, high-performance organization.

Bitterness and cynicism, borne of years of being whipsawed between competing mandates and missions and the waxing and waning of serious managerial attention, are widespread. Through most of the past 25 years, there has not been a consistent mission focus or measurement system for assessing success.

The overall poor quality of basic organizational systems gives workers the sense that even their best efforts are ultimately futile.

The Operating Culture

The prevailing operating culture is one of defeatism, in which failure is expected and, among employees, the position of martyrdom is the one reflexively respected. Every insult to functionality is therefore expected and, perhaps, even sought. This cultural stance is likely adopted as a way to achieve a measure of self-respect, which was identified as the most important motivating value in the staff survey.The reform plan goes on to identify a core culture of good values and impulses that survive:

The Core Culture

Fortunately, the legacy of the core culture stands against the operating culture.The core culture is one of dedicated, even heroic protection of children. Most employees still fight day in and day out to protect the children of this city, regardless of the obstacles.

According to the survey, employees believe that the top two concerns of the agency coincide with their own: removing children in danger and making timely responses toallegations of abuse and neglect.

A majority of survey respondents (54.0%) also believe that most ACS workers took their job so that they could help kids. Still, according to the survey results, employees believe the agency has far to go to repair the infrastructure that must support the front-line operations that are charged with assuring the protection and well-being of the children of New York."

Post reform ACS – Fewer removals and fewer court cases:

In New York City the fiscal years since the departure of Nicholas Scopetta as ACS’ Commissioner have seen a marked reduction in foster care placements, from a total in FY 2001 of 8,729 to a total of 6,850 in FY 2003, a decrease of more than 21%. What had been called an unofficial policy statement: "When in doubt, yank ’em out", (believed by many to have been the barely concealed policy of Mr. Scopetta) seems to be in recession. FY 1999, at or near the peak of what many believe was a removal panic saw 10,444 foster care placements. In FY 1999 ACS filed Article Ten actions (child neglect and abuse complaints) in Family Court regarding 11,703 children. In FY 2003 the Article Ten petition filings had been reduced and involved 7,881 children. What these reduced placements and filings meant to children is incalculable. This trend also has a beneficial effect on child protective workers.

Removals are in and of themselves stressful and often traumatic events for CPS workers. I can speak of hours lost sitting in the waiting room of Family Court waiting to give testimony for a removal I didn’t believe was right while other cases sat on my desk in the Manhattan Field Office, unvisited and undocumented. I personally was once ordered to conduct a needless and gratuitously cruel child removal. I argued against it but my arguments were not going to be listened to that time. I conducted the removal along with my partner, who also found the task very distasteful. For weeks I suffered with sleeplessness, guilt, anger at myself, anger at my field partner, anger at the supervisor and manager who would not even listen to my partner and me.

I finally wrote a scathing memorandum about the event. While I was actually thanked by management for describing the event in writing it took a resolution on my part never to allow something like that to happen to me again to help me start to feel more normal.

Honest people can have honest disagreements. When a worker is ordered to conduct a removal that (s)he knows is unnecessary that worker’s own well being is put at risk A policy of "When in doubt yank ’em out" – whether it is written, merely spoken, implied or understood can only result in needless removals. Needless removals hurt children and families and feed the symptoms of burn out in the individual workers, which in turn feed the burn out of the organization. Needless removals are violations of human rights.

Marc Parent is one person who should never have been a child protective worker. In his book, Parent portrays the Emergency Children’s Services as an operation that tolerates outlaw switchblade knife toting cowboys, including Parent himself. (Parent, 1996, 1998 pp.50, 51, 235, 309)

If Parent is to be taken at his word, he did spend four years as a representative of society (the government’s child protective arm) sometimes behaving much like a Hollywood cowboy running through the homes and lives of people for whom he felt shameless contempt. Here is Parent in his own words:

( "I wish I could say the Bronx is just a delightful place, I wish I could say the Bronx has gotten a bad rap-I love it when things aren’t as they seem. Unfortunately, most everything you’ve probably ever heard about that dreary acreage is true. There are undoubtedly some wonderful places in the Bronx. I’ve never been to them."
"The stoplight just over the bridge serves as an unofficial customs station where the local unofficial directors of cultural affairs can make unofficial searches of foreign vehicles, if you know what I mean." Parent, 1996, 1998 p. 61, . . . "There must be something about living in a housing project that makes you want to urinate in elevators, . . ." Parent 1996, 1998 p. 185.)

The fact that a person who holds these views held a government granted position of the most awesome power over Bronx residents and housing project residents, and all the residents of New York City, and who did some of the things that he says he did, would not matter much today in and of itself. Marc Parent’s actions represent a cynicism and emotional detachment, and physical and psychological exhaustion. These actions led to what would seem to have been a guilt-fueled bout of depression. (Parent, 1996, 1998 pp.315 – 340).

Parent often worked long and taxing hours, as did his cohorts. It is true beyond those facts that Parent and his co-workers often perceived themselves to be in physical danger, and felt helpless before these forces. Marc Parent represents the worst face of CPS worker burnout, and his actions show just how deleterious the syndrome can be to the children. Is not a boy dragged coatless and barefoot in the rain and a baby left to starve to death the calling cards of fatigue, cynicism and emotional detachment?

The problem with the cynical Mr. Parent is that he wrote a book that gained the support of some of America’s opinion shaping elite. People like Anna Quindlen, Alex Kotlowitz and Stone Phillips.

Parent and his book represent child protective work to much of the world.

The book is suggested reading at Illinois State University School of Social Work (Campbell, M.2003 p.3). It is required reading for students at the University of California, Berkeley School of Social Welfare. (Duerr Berrick, J. 2003) The book is also required reading at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. (Halem, G. Fall 2003, P. 3.)

Parent became a celebrity who not only had conversations with New York Times editors, and who met with the Child Welfare Commissioner, reviewing New York City’s Child Welfare reform plans. Mr. Parent became a star:

( "I actually lost my voice after talking with every television and print media person you might imagine. The editors of the Times told me the response was unusually heavy. It spoke volumes to me about the lack of information coming from the inside . . ." Parent, 1996, 1998 p. 370.)

As the media drums beat louder for reform. Mr. Scopetta, a professional prosecutor and newly installed the Child Welfare Commissioner was ready to step up the pace of removals as the media were demanding in the wake of the Liza Izquierdo and Lisa Steinberg cases:

( "’I would like the caseworkers to err on the side of protecting the children,’ announced Nicholas Scoppetta, the former prosecutor named by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to revamp the troubled agency. Shortly after Elisa’s death made the headlines, Scoppetta sounded this call and defensive social work took hold in New York City as it never had before . . ." (Sexton, 1996). The Richard Hillman Foundation, Inc.)

Taking Parent at his word, it has been years since he barged past a doorman to brutally and needlessly bruise and drag from his mother, in the rain, a shoeless and coatless eleven – years – old boy. A boy who had food, clothes, shelter, and who was attending school regularly, and whom no one alleged was being physically mistreated. Taken late one night without a court order because his mother appeared to be drunk. Parent held the child in a bear hug ( "I held Robby from behind in a tight bear hug." ) Parent admits causing marks and bruises to the child ( "I grabbed Robby’s arm hard. I mean really hard. Marks and Bruises Hard-Too Hard." )

The child begged his neighbors for help.

( ‘These people are taking me against my will. Please help me’ . . . Robby and the three of us stepped out as he pleaded calmly to the couple again, ‘Please help me. They’re hurting me.’ )

Why did Parent do this? Parent’s supervisor (an overworked cynic perhaps, or a product of an overworked and cynical organizational culture) apparently wanted to evade responsibility for the case. He gave Parent discretion to remove or not to remove the child. All Parent was being asked to do was to slant his report in support his own decision. (Parent 1998, pp 121 – 158.)

The truth is that Parent would have been in the right to report that the mother was drunk and that he had not removed the child. New York State’s Family Court Act governs ACS and its actions. The Act states the rules governing the removal of a child from the custody of a parent without a court order:

§ 1024. Emergency removal without court order.(a) A peace officer, acting pursuant to his special duties, police officer, or a law enforcement official, or an agent of a duly incorporated society for the prevention of cruelty to children or a designated employee of a city or county department of social services shall take all necessary measures to protect a child’s life or health including, when appropriate, taking or keeping a child in protective custody, . . . (I) such person has reasonable cause to believe that the child is in such circumstance or condition that his continuing in said place of residence or in the care and custody of the parent or person legally responsible for the child’s care presents an imminent danger to the child’s life or health; and (ii) there is not time enough to apply for an order under section one thousand twenty-two. (Family Court Act Article 10, part 2.)

Parent acknowledges his culpability in this removal as well: "… You see, the kid seems basically all right. I mean, I have a feeling this isn’t a one – time thing for the mother and it looks like Robby’s learned to do pretty well for himself when his mom’s on the bottle. In fact, if we did a removal, I bet she’d miss him a lot more than he’d miss her. He calls the shots around there, you know what I mean? Man – of – the house stuff . . . But there was no way to write all that up in a case summary – ‘Eleven- years- old Robby was left at home to tuck in his wasted maybe – hooker mother because they have developed a system that, however dysfunctional, seems to work, and because the New York City group homes resemble Turkish prisons and can only be used as safe havens when reported children are at imminent risk of amputation and the like.’" (Parent, p. 143.)

ACS utilizes a hierarchy of child maltreatment allegations. At the top are those that were once called high risk and now are called high priority allegations. High priority allegation number seven concerns parental substance abuse with a child under the care of that parent who is under the age of seven. Robby was eleven years old. The allegations against his mother were from an anonymous source.This illegal and brutal act took place prior to the accession of Mayor Giuliani and happened before Commissioner Scopetta’s get tough policy was instituted at ACS. Parent was practicing (caseworker) defensive social work and he possibly shattered a boy’s life that night.Parent states in his book that disciplinary action was an unknown at ECS in his day. (Parent, p. 123.)

Had Parent done what the law in fact mandated, he would have faced no consequences beyond the disapproval or pique of his powerless supervisor. Parent might have been surprised to find a new added respect from that same supervisor.

The eleven – years – old Robby could have been left in his mother’s home that night.There was no imminent danger to the child’s life or health. There was time enough to apply for an order under section one thousand twenty-two. Robby and his mother deserved a chance. His mother deserved a chance to change. She deserved to try to keep her son. Robby deserved a deliberate plan for his safety and well being. He did not deserve nor did he gain anything, by being brutalized and taken from his mother in the middle of the night without even the benefit or cloak of a lawyer’s opinion.

Mandates:It’s been years since Parent left a starving infant to die and got away with it. According to Parent he and his partner decided not to get police assistance to enter a dangerous building and address an allegation of an infant in possible mortal danger because they both wanted to hurry up their work day. At any rate, his partner was carrying an illegal switchblade knife for protection. They proceeded to rush through a purported investigation centered around an allegation that a one week old infant was dying of malnutrition. The infant’s mother was hardly coping with her situation. Parent describes the visit: "Five children came racing around the corner from the next room . . . The woman made no effort to control them . . . We hadn’t been in the apartment thirty seconds and we were practically caring for the woman’s children . . . " about the week old infant, the main subject of the report, Parent’s field partner observes: "He looks thin." Parent and his partner, both rattled by fatigue, mice and the pandemonium of five unsupervised small children running around naked were wanting to go home above all. They left this infant for what they hoped would be a follow up visit from the Bronx Field Office the next day, or failing that, the infant’s next scheduled encounter with society – an appointment with a pediatrician set for the following week (if the infant’s overwhelmed mother, with her five other very active small children, would get him to that appointment.)

Parents’ explanation of how he and his partner were shielded from blame in the matter frankly does not ring true to me as an ECS worker. Parent speaks of the Bronx Field Office having been given the blame for missing a supposed 48 hour mandate to follow up on the child protective investigatory visit that he and his partner had made as ECS workers.

In fact there are two mandates that ACS’s Division of Child Protection is held to. – One is for a twenty – four hour contact and assessment of child safety mandated by New York State law. (New York State Social Service Law, Article Six, Title Six § 424.paragraph seven.)The second mandate, a 48-hour face – to – face contact, is based on New York City law.. (Status Report I: June 1998, Outcome and Indicators, New York City Administration for Children’s Services p. 53)

"Tracking all Home Visits

When ACS receives a report of abuse or neglect, caseworkers are required by City law to make a home visit to families within 48 hours. The State of New York imposes an additional requirement that must be met prior to the City’s requirement. This regulation specifically dictates that contact be made within 24 hours with a family who is the subject of an abuse or neglect report to ensure the safety of the children. This action represents the initial step of the caseworker’s investigation.ACS is in the process of implementing an automated tracking system to document the status ofall 24 hour contacts and 48 hour home visits.”

The Status report indicates that this 48-hour home visit rule has been mandated at least since 1990. It is difficult for me to imagine that members of a Fatality Review Panel (ACS News, February 14, 1997) would not understand that it was the responsibility of ECS to address the allegation of the failure to thrive of this one week old child.

But Parent apparently did understand his culpability regardless of whatever technicality the panel found that protected him and ECS in the death of that starving infant and deflected the culpability to others. After Parent and his partner made their fateful case visit the Bronx Field Office was under no mandate to follow up and do what Parent and his partner should have done and were supposed to have done – actually pay attention to the children in that chaotic apartment with its mice and noise, and particularly to pay attention to the one week old infant and to do whatever was necessary to assure the safety of this one week old who looked "thin" and of whom his harried and overwhelmed mother had said "He eats okay,.. Not very much, but he does eat. "

ACS’s mandates had been purportedly met already – by Parent and his field partner.While many mandated reporters such as police officers and emergency room nurses, school guidance counselors and social workers may have a harmless notion that ECS and ACS are separate entities, ECS and ACS are one and the same entity. If ECS workers were to operate under a notion that they are not discharging ACS’s legally mandated responsibilities that would not be harmless at all. When ECS sends a worker to a case visit ACS and our society is sending that same worker at that same moment, to do society’s job and ACS’s job – to protect children.

It isn’t rare at all for Field Offices to not immediately send workers in the footsteps of ECS. Field Office staffs often correctly rely on the belief that the assessments and actions of the ECS staff are appropriate.

They properly rely on the fact that ECS has followed policy and procedure and has discharged the 24 hour and 48 hour legally mandated contact responsibilities.

A burned out, cynical and tired system allows frightened, tired and cynical twenty – three -year olds to kick on people’s doors in the middle of the night and then decide whether or not these citizens’ children immediately come with them in the name of safety or whether they will stay at home.

It is the dedicated, even courageous staff whom the children must rely upon.

God save the children of the poor from the likes of Marc Parent.