Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Man bites dog!

…or the equivalent in Washington, D.C. The headline on a story in today's Washington Post could have been: "Child Dies; Caseworker Not Scapegoated!" Yes, it really happened. D.C.'s Child and Family Services Administration rushed out a statement defending the caseworker in the most recent tragedy, in which a five-month-old infant died while sleeping on a sofa with his 15-year-old mother. According to one public official, the mother may have accidentally rolled over on the infant while they slept.

CFSA acted so quickly to defend the worker that I have to wonder if they were trying to get the word out before Mayor Adrian Fenty could fire her. Yes, according to the agency, the worker did everything right, but remember, according to Fenty, that doesn't matter. If a child dies, and CFSA knew about the child, the mayor says, "there can be no excuses."

And, indeed, had anyone wanted to fire the worker it would have been easy. To borrow a phrase from Maine foster parent Mary Callahan, who applied it to how workers often treat birth parents, there were plenty of "gotcha moments" in this case if the mayor wanted to take advantage of them. According to the Post:

A report came April 29 that "an infant was not getting regular checkups." CFSA gave this account: The social worker visited the home the next day and the following day, May 1, and left information on the door about contacting her, because no one was home. That Sunday, [two days later] the boy's maternal grandfather called the social worker on her cellphone, and the social worker saw the family [another two days later] May 5.

Now, think back to the Banita Jacks case. The caseworker there did even more. Responding to a report from a school social worker, she went to the home, found no one home and left a note. Later, after the school social worker called in another report, a police officer went to the home and found nothing wrong. Nevertheless, the caseworker returned – with police – the following day, but no one answered. The next day the caseworker tried again.

So apparently the worker in the Jacks case tried even more than the caseworker in the most recent tragedy. Yet the worker in the Jacks case was raked over the coals in the media – and fired – for not doing more.

One could argue that the Jacks case was different because the allegations in the original reports to the child abuse hotline in that case were more serious. But that is counterbalanced by the fact that law enforcement investigated and found no problem - something the "gotcha gang" has almost willfully ignored since that case became public.

Indeed, had the child in this most recent case died on any day between May 1 and May 5, odds are the worker would have been fired this time as well. And no one would be saying she'd done enough because the allegation was less serious.

Here's what actually happened next, according to the Post:

[During the May 5 visit, the caseworker] found that the mother and her child had not received medical checkups since birth and that the mother and a sibling did not go to school regularly. The social worker also saw that the child had been sleeping in a car seat and got the mother to agree to place the infant on his back in a bassinet. She contacted a local program to get a crib and set up medical care for the infant, the mother and her sibling. This included a May 30 home visit from two registered nurses to talk about infant care. By June 2, the social worker found that the family had gotten a portable crib on its own.

Very good work, particularly in light of the enormous caseloads facing most CFSA workers. But did anyone keep checking to see if the mother was using the crib?

And, of course, there's still another question: The worker apparently did everything she should have done – in this case. But how many other cases does she have? If she has more than 20 or 30, odds are there's some other case where she hasn't been able to do everything she should. What if the child who died had been from one of those cases? Gotcha!

We'll know the scapegoating has really ended and real reform can begin when there is a tragedy and CFSA puts out a statement like this:

"The worker in this case has an outstanding track record, repeatedly going the extra mile for children and families. But this time, she simply had so many cases that she couldn't get to the one where a child died. We refuse to respond by throwing her to the wolves."

The day that happens is the first day CFSA will move toward having fewer tragedies.