Monday, February 27, 2012

Foster care in America: A Nebraska caseworker gives away the game

Says the worker: “It was a long day taking away babies.”

            When it comes to the all-time Child Protective Services Excuse Hit Parade this item almost always is in the top three: “We can’t take away children,” says the caseworker or the supervisor or the agency flack or the agency director.  “Only a judge has the power to do that. The courts make these decisions.” 
            The fact that this is a lie doesn’t stop reporters from falling for it over and over again.

            In fact, in every state, CPS caseworkers can remove any child they want on the spot.  In every state except Michigan, the child is supposed to be at imminent risk of harm – meaning the circumstances are so dire that there isn’t time to hold a hearing first.  But who judges that?  The same caseworker who is taking away the child in the first place.  (In Michigan, the imminent risk standard doesn’t even exist on paper.)  So it’s no wonder that taking away the child, solely on the authority of the caseworker, without a hearing first, is standard operating procedure whether there is an “emergency” or not.  A judge won’t enter the picture until anywhere from 24 hours to more than a week later.

            As Prof. Paul Chill of the University of Connecticut School of Law (and a former NCCPR board member) has written: “In practice … children are seldom removed on anything but an emergency basis – either unilaterally, without a court order, or on the basis of some form of ex parte judicial authorization.” (Ex parte means only CPS is in the courtroom – or the caseworker simply may make a phone call to the court.  But, as Prof. Chill notes, often she doesn’t do even that much.)

            In about half the states, the caseworker literally can walk out the door with the child. In the other half, including Nebraska, she has to call law enforcement to do it for her.  Either way, it’s the worker who has the power.

            And, when she apparently thought only her friends could read about it, one Nebraska caseworker admitted as much.

            While preparing a report for release next month about one of the worst child welfare systems in America, the one in Nebraska, I came across a story from WOWT-TV in Omaha from 2009.  The story concerned a couple, apparently falsely accused, who decided to investigate the investigator.  They found her personal Facebook page.  Apparently, like most of us, the caseworker had trouble with the privacy settings.  Because comments she posted, which were visible to everyone, included these:

           “I’m tired, it was a long day taking away babies.”

           And under “job description:” “I investigate child abuse/neglect and help families so it doesn’t happen again … and yes that means I will take their kid.” The posting also says: “We really don’t want to take kids away.” [Emphasis added].

            Contrary to what workers and their bosses say over and over to credulous journalists, this worker knows full well who has the power to take a child at will, before a judge ever enters the picture.