Sunday, August 14, 2022

Caseworkers: Targets, too

By N.S.
New York Newsday
April 16, 1990

Every time the public hears of another child who has been viciously and repeatedly abused by his natural parents, a great cry goes forth: why didn’t the caseworker and the child welfare agency in charge act in time to separate the child from the parents?

One explanation given is that legal obstacles intended to protect the natural parents make the process of termination of parental rights arduous and prolonged. [“Parents and Other Strangers,” by Ann Reiniger, New York Forum, March 26.] In my experience the reason is far less complicated: caseworkers are frightened of physical retaliation by the parents if they initiate termination proceedings against clearly unfit parents.

What makes these parents threaten and abuse their children not surprisingly also makes them threaten and abuse their caseworker. A great many are crack-addicted; others are emotionally disturbed. Caseworkers are understandably reluctant to take measures that will further provoke a disturbed client’s wrath.

Every social worker I have known who has lasted in the job for at least 18 months has been physically attacked or threatened. The problem is so pervasive that courses in how to handle unruly clients exist at some private agencies.

Though their professional lives are full of conflict, many social workers and administrators in my experience have a desperate need to avoid confrontation at all costs. Hence, they tolerate the reckless whims of dangerous clients.

Agency administrators, unfortunately, usually do little to protect their caseworkers. Even in cases of outright physical assault, they avoid calling the police. The agencies appear to be worried that ugly incidents between clients and caseworkers will reflect badly on them, possibly costing them contributions and grants and making it more difficult for them to attract foster parents.

One troubled parent I’ll call Rwanda Campbell reacted to caseworkers’ intervention with a mixture of threats, violence, and confrontation. In typical fashion, my director told her whatever she wanted to hear.

Campbell had let her boyfriend rape (“sexually abuse”) her 2-year-old daughter “Lakeisha.” By the time the city’s Child Welfare Administration became involved, the boyfriend had progressed to nearly drowning the child. That was in early 1986. Since then, Campbell has physically abused her children in front of caseworkers. She has assaulted and made countless death threats against caseworkers. In March, 1987, she wed at the city jail on Rikers Island the man convicted of raping and almost killing her child, though her client caseworker contract with our agency forbade all contact with him.

Today this mother is further from having her parental rights terminated than she was four years ago. While she does not currently have legal custody of her children, she has unlimited access to them through kinship foster care, which places children in the custody of an uncle, aunt or grandparent. Foster-care workers are mandated to develop a “realistic” plan to reunite foster children with their biological parents. If the parents don’t follow the plan, the agency must apply to Family Court to terminate parental rights.

Rwanda Campbell “got over on” the system. She was successful because people who knew what she was about didn’t do their jobs. The less she cooperated with my agency—the more employed violence and intimidation—the more eager the agency seemed to be to return Lakeisha and her two other children to Campbell’s care.

After her children had spent 30 months in foster care, during which time she had not cooperated at all with my agency, I suggested that the agency move to terminate Campbell’s parental rights. My [black] supervisor branded me a “racist,” even though the children’s adoptive parents, like the children themselves, would surely have been black. She then sought to have me terminated.

Why do the Rwanda Campbells fight so hard to get back the children they then go on to abuse? A journalist covering the “poverty beat” suggested that children mean welfare money, which is used to buy crack. To my knowledge, Campbell, for all her bizarre behavior, was not a crack addict. Her children helped her keep a roof over her head.

The children of some clients may be the only strong emotional tie that they have to other human beings. Some parents cling irrationally to their children.

But somewhere along the line, someone has got to set limits with the client. If the social worker won’t, an administrator must. If the administrator won’t, the criminal justice system eventually will.

Nicholas Stix is a social worker who has worked for both private foster care and adoption agencies. He is also the editor and publisher of A Different Drummer magazine.


Anonymous said...

I often think of social worker and pizza delivery man as two of the most dangerous jobs USA. Going into areas where the demographics are very hostile and angry and have a well deserved reputation for violence.

Anonymous said...

Would I be correct in assuming,that 32 years ago,most social workers would have been White--compared to today?

Therein would be the problem now--incompetent blacks in jobs they have no clue(or care)about doing correctly.