Failure to Protect
Failure to Protect: The Caseworker Files Produced b Barak Goodman Rachel Dretzin Muriel Soenens
Written by Barak Goodman
ANNOUNCER: Last week on FRONTLINE, the story of the death of a little girl while in the custody of the state of Maine.
NEWSCASTER: Five-year old Logan was killed after her foster mother allegedly tied her to a high chair and put duct tape over her nose and mouth.
ANNOUNCER: The death of Logan Marr focused outrage on a normally secretive child protective system.
MAN AT HEARING: Who holds these people accountable? The answer is nobody.
ANNOUNCER: Why was Logan removed from a mother who had never abused her and given to a foster mother who killed her?
NEWSCASTER: The agency did not follow up on a complaint Logan made that Schofield had hurt her.
ANNOUNCER: Who should have kept her safe?
KEITH CONCANNON, Commissioner of Maine Department of Human Services: The Department of Human Services did not kill this child.
There is not much else to say that isn’t said in the statement that THIS CHILD WAS REMOVED FROM A MOTHER WHO NEVER ABUSED HER AND GIVEN TO A FOSTER MOTHER WHO KILLED HER… that is followed by a statement from the COMMISSIONER of DHS that “THE DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES DID NOT KILL THIS CHILD.
This reminds me of my highschool algebra classes. I never did master those math classes, not because they were too difficult for me but because they required me to wrap my brain around hypothetical theories of trains leaving stations at different times and speeds and figuring out who would end up where … I had no interest in memorizing rules that applied to these idiotic word problems that I didn’t think I would ever use in “real life” (being a teenager who knew it all) so I answered C. BUT – one thing I DID grasp was a mathematical certainty that IF A=B and B=C then A=C
Had the child not been removed from the home the child was not abused in, the child would not have been murdered. Who removed the child from the home? The caseworker.
Who does the caseworker answer to? DHS.
DHS KILLED THIS CHILD.
If a parent gave their child to a caregiver and that caregiver murdered the child, you can bet your butt that CPS will find a way to charge that parent with failure to protect or placing the child in a situation or care of a person that they should have known would cause harm to the child.
MAN AT HEARING: No way! No way should any court in this country of ours ever take a child from a parent based on “possible,” “probable” or “maybe”! What is the proper balance between saving a child and destroying a family?
DHS CASEWORKER: He is a real threat to this child, with the substance abuse and the battering.
When should parents lose the right to raise their own children? They’re supposed to try to keep families together, not pull them apart. And who gets to decide?
NARRATOR: Every year, some 200,000 children are removed from their homes after allegations of abuse or neglect.
3rd CASEWORKER: [on the phone] That’s why when you asked me if you could visit with Mom again, I said no, because Mom, you know, isn’t going to be a part of your life anymore.
NARRATOR: When FRONTLINE arrived in Bangor, the office was still haunted by the death in foster care of 5-year old Logan Marr. Now it had happened again. A child had died, this time in the parents’ home. [unit meeting]
BOBBI AMES, Unit Supervisor: I’m not sure if you guys all were aware or not, but we had a child death on Sunday night.
1st CASEWORKER: Huh?
BOBBI AMES: We had a child death on Sunday night.
1st CASEWORKER: You don’t have any idea–
BOBBIE AMES: Our office had a child death on an open safety assessment.
2nd CASEWORKER: What happened? Are you allowed to say? BOBBI AMES: I don’t know.
[crosstalk] NARRATOR: We were not allowed to follow this case. When a child dies, the child protective system is thrown into turmoil, and it is caseworkers who must bear the brunt.
1st CASEWORKER: I’m having just seeing flashbacks, where we just were painted- -we were just slammed last year for having a kid in custody that died. And now there’s not one that’s in custody, we’re going to get slammed, “Well, this kid should have been in custody, and that’s why the child died.
” BOBBI AMES: They’re definitely going to be looking at what we did in that process, and–
1st CASEWORKER: I mean, we can’t win.
MELISSA DUMONT, Caseworker: Every time we send a kid home, it’s very scary that maybe- -maybe you didn’t do enough. Maybe–you know, maybe things aren’t as safe as they could be because a kid could end up–you know, a kid that you say, “OK, this is safe for you to go home”–I mean, we put our relationships with these kids on the line and say, “OK, it’s safe for you to go home now. You can go home to your–your parents.” And then they get re-abused or–you know, the worst thing that could happen would be they would get killed. And that has happened before, where kids have gotten killed after we sent them home. And then it’s–it feels like it’s your responsibility that that happened to that child because you made a decision and you said it was OK.
NARRATOR: It is the morning after caseworker David Greeley took 10-year-old Matthew from his home. He is calling the boy’s father, Keith, for the first time since then. DAVID GREELEY: [on the phone] David Greeley calling.Here’s the way I’d like to have things happen this morning. And I know you’ve got questions and so forth, so let’s try to conduct some business here. It’s our position, Keith, that the child needs to remain away from the home and you need to get involved in services. As far as contact with Matthew goes, we don’t want to have any contact until after court next week. Is that OK? All right. I tell you– how about if we do this? I think it would be important to Matthew to hear your voice and to know that you’re OK and for you to be able to reassure him. OK. OK. Well, what we don’t want, Keith, is a long conversation about the details of what’s going on. OK.
NARRATOR: Matthew and his father, Keith, live alone. His parents split up when he was a baby, and his mother is no longer a part of his life. KEITH, Matthew’s Father: I’d come home from work, she’d be drinking. And we argued all the time, so I–we split up. So I hired a lawyer and went to court, and he came to live with me. And it’s been seven-and-a-half years now.
KEITH: Hi, Matt! MATTHEW: Hi! KEITH: How are you, dear? NARRATOR: Two days after his removal, Keith is permitted to speak to Matthew by telephone. He recorded their conversation.
MATTHEW: They tied me–absolutely tied me to a bed, face-down!
MATTHEW: Because I was upset!
KEITH: What? You were going–
MATTHEW: Because I was so upset!
KEITH: Oh, God! Dear! That’s abuse. That’s an abuse, and I know it is! He was so upset. Because he’s upset, they tie him to a bed. Let’s be serious, people! Think good things, OK, honey? Would you try to think some good things?
KEITH: You know, let me see. What can we think of?
MATTHEW: Coming home.
KEITH: Coming home. OK, that’s a good thing.
MATTHEW: I love you so much. I want to come home! Dad, I love you! KEITH: Oh, I love you, and you are coming home.You think about that, OK, honey? You think, “My daddy is coming after me, and I am coming home. ” You think that, OK, dear? Because that’s what’s going to happen, OK? OK.
NARRATOR: Two decades ago, the child welfare system was focused on preserving families first. Before losing custody of their children, parents were often given years to turn their lives around. But today the pendulum has swung. Caseworkers place the safety of children above all other considerations, including parents’ rights.
NARRATOR: Under this pressure, caseworkers are now intervening in families earlier and more aggressively, taking on cases they might once have passed over.
CINDY POST: Let me ask you, what is neglect? What do you think?
3rd TEACHER: What about the child that just nobody pays attention to? They don’t listen to the child. They don’t hear him. The child doesn’t exist, other than the fact that there’s a picture on the mantle. NARRATOR: Twice as many cases now involve neglect rather than abuse, a definition that is often much more ambiguous.
3rd TEACHER: The laundry may be done. This child may be clean. But the child’s alone.
CINDY POST: I agree. I personally feel that neglect is one of the most damaging forms of abuse because it doesn’t damage the body so much, unless you’re starved or something, but it damages the soul.
[to Robin Whitney] OK. So what do you think it means that she–that there’s no affect?
NARRATOR: A neglect case has come in. Supervisor Cindy Post and her caseworker, Robin Whitney, are creating a narrative of the case on paper.
CINDY POST: [Reading form] OK, “What are the compelling facts that required our continued involvement?”
NARRATOR: A woman is accused of failing to recognize a danger posed to herchildren by an ex-boyfriend.
CINDY POST: And the fact is that Shirley Mitchell continues to deny that her daughter was sexually abused, in spite of the fact that her daughter has disclosed this to her. So that’s a fact.
NARRATOR: Cindy has never met the client. Her name is Shirley Mitchell.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: Do you want a Nutty Buddy, a half a donut, the Devil Dog or a brownie? Excuse me! Could you put it on the counter, please? Thank you.
NARRATOR: Shirley lives in a mobile home with her three sons.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: Patrick’s, like, my Socrates. He likes to read books and play computers. Last year, he was a 63 average, and this year he’s come up to an 85. [to Derek] Excuse me. We’re not discussing Pat, we’re discussing you. Derek’s my agitator. He’s, like, a little leprechaun, just picking [unintelligible] and bouncing around. And he thinks his smile and his big eyes and his dimples gets him out of everything. [to Derek] Why you so mad that you have to go to bed at 7:00 o’clock, when you earned it? Dustin, no, please! Dustin is my mischief. He’s like a sponge, just yearning and stuff. And his intellect is way beyond his age. [to Dustin] Dustin, no, no! One. Sit. Excuse me. Wait a minute. Down, where you’re safe. Thank you.
NARRATOR: Shirley has led a hard life. She’s had two long-term relationships with men, the first with her ex-husband, who battered both her and their son, Patrick, the other with her boyfriend, Dan. That relationship ended when Shirley’s 14-year-old daughter accused Dan of molesting her and was taken into DHS custody. Though Dan has always denied the accusation, Patrick has said that he saw Dan enter his sister’s room at night.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: [to Patrick] So don’t sit so close to the TV, OK?
NARRATOR: So far, Shirley has chosen to believe Dan, the father of her youngest son, over the sometimes inconsistent stories of her children.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: When my daughter was getting her own way, it didn’t happen. She told me many times, “No, it didn’t happen.” And then when she was angry with me, if I didn’t let her boyfriend sleep here, she couldn’t go see her boyfriend, or she couldn’t do something that she wanted to do, it did happen. DHS’s thing is, “Well, you need to admit it.” You know, “You have to at least think about it” because I told them, “No, I never seen it.” And I’m blunt. And if I even thought that , you know, that had happened or was happening, he’d have been out the door, number one. But their big thing is trying to force me to admit that, “Yeah, maybe it did happen.” How can you admit something you don’t know, something you never seen, something you never suspected?
ROBIN WHITNEY, Caseworker: I see a big piece of this jeopardy to these boys being the emotional abuse of the mom not believing when they told about the abuse.
NARRATOR: Cindy and Robin have decided that if Shirley does not acknowledge the alleged abuse, they will ask a judge to remove her three boys.
ROBIN WHITNEY: Even now, Mom’s continuing not to believe and to talk about–that what- -the things the boys seen, she’s telling them they didn’t see. And I think that places those kids at emotional risk. CINDY POST: Oh, absolutely.
ROBIN WHITNEY: And I also think they can’t depend on her–
CINDY POST: –to protect.
ROBIN WHITNEY: –to protect.
CINDY POST: Absolutely. I agree.
ROBIN WHITNEY: And I think–you know, that’s basically my–
CINDY POST: That’s it.
ROBIN WHITNEY: Kind of in a nutshell.
CINDY POST: And that’s jeopardy.
ROBIN WHITNEY: Yeah, and that’s jeopardy.
NARRATOR: Robin wants to meet with Shirley, Dan, and Dan’s attorney. Even though Shirley does not believe the accusations against Dan, she has agreed to the meeting.
ROBIN WHITNEY: Dan cannot have any contact with the kids, come to the house or call you on the telephone when the kids are there. But other than that, as far as you having contact with Dan, that’s up to you, OK? My point is this, Shirley, is that I’m looking to see that you’re going to protect your children, and I’m basing that on the fact that I believe, based on what she said to me and what the other children have said to me, that Dan is a threat to your children. So you need to make that decision, about whether you have contact with Dan or not.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: And if I did, you’d hold that against me . It would be I wouldn’t be protecting my kids.
ROBIN WHITNEY: I would–I would–that would put doubt in my mind–
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: OK.
ROBIN WHITNEY: –about your ability to protect your children.
NARRATOR: To satisfy the department, Shirley decides she will cut off all contact with Dan. DAN: Basically, we have no relationship.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: Right. DAN: You’re not my girlfriend anymore.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: No. DAN: OK.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: Because if I do, I’ll lose kids.
NARRATOR: Today Shaleigh has to report to her supervisor on the case of 2-year-old Mark.
MELISSA, Shaleigh’s Supervisor: Not being able to recognize the threat of the conditions of the home and not taking recommendations seriously. Beth does not believe that Roy Gray is a threat to the safety of Mark. She has allowed Mark to live in the same house as Roy.
NARRATOR: Though Shaleigh believes there is a threat to Mark, she has so far seen no grounds to seek his removal. But her supervisor isn’t so sure. MELISSA: This just sounds really out of control for this child, and I think we need to talk with our attorney about filing a petition in court.
NARRATOR: An assistant attorney general will advise them about the seriousness of the situation.
MELISSA: Hopefully, he’s there. [on the phone] Hi, Geoff. It’s Melissa. How are you? Yes. Yes. Can I go ahead and put you on speakerphone? OK. This is the situation. The man in the home, who we knew–he’s not a convicted sex offender because he pled down–
GEOFF GOODWIN, Assistant Attorney General: [on the phone] To a straight assault, or something like that.
MELISSA: Right. Right. The conditions of the home when Shaleigh went there were so–it was–
GEOFF GOODWIN: Dirty?
MELISSA: It was–it was beyond dirty. And there was a lot of really unsafe things in the home, like with the furnace, with–the house is so cluttered, there aren’t any easy escapes out of the home. There was dog feces, cat–what was there?
SHALEIGH ANTHONY: Yeah, there were three different stoves being used. One was actually enclosed underneath the stairs. There was live wiri ng open, all throughout the house.
GEOFF GOODWIN: So your question is whether or not this child’s in immediate risk of serious harm?
GEOFF GOODWIN: And currently, this woman is–this is where she lives, in this bad house, condemned house, or condemned-like house–
GEOFF GOODWIN: –with this–what we would consider a sex offender.
MELISSA:Right. And she’s–
GEOFF GOODWIN: So your question’s whether or not can we take a petition today?
GEOFF GOODWIN: Answer’s yes.
GEOFF GOODWIN: Right. So–
GEOFF GOODWIN: Right. So– –I would just go ask for custody–
GEOFF GOODWIN: Right. So straight to the department, and see how that flies. I don’t think–I don’t think you’re going to have a problem getting a preliminary protection order.
MELISSA: OK. All right, Geoff.
GEOFF GOODWIN: Good luck.
MELISSA: Thank you very much.
GEOFF GOODWIN: Good-bye.
MELISSA: Bye-bye. OK!
SHALEIGH ANTHONY: That scares me.
MELISSA: So are you prepared to do a PPO today?
SHALEIGH ANTHONY: Do I– [laughs]
MELISSA: Yes, you have to. [laughter] Yeah, we talked to the AG, so we’re going to –what you should do is–
SHALEIGH ANTHONY: Oh, my! So I need to do the PPO today?
MELISSA: Yeah. We should do it today. We shouldn’t wait any longer.
SHALEIGH ANTHONY: Oh. This is scaring me. [www.pbs.org: FAQs on how the system works]
SHALEIGH ANTHONY: I just didn’t expect him to be– “Go get ’em.” I didn’t– I guess I didn’t realize the severity of the situation, from my own point of view, is that I had a gut feeling that things weren’t right, but I didn’t realize it was this severe and was going to happen this quick. I thought that I was going to be waiting till next week to do something. Well, it’s going to be done, I guess. MELISSA: She’s going to do the phone call in my office.
NARRATOR: Shaleigh must try to inform Beth of the department’s decision.
SHALEIGH ANTHONY: What am I going to do if Beth isn’t home?
MELISSA: Well, that’s our–we make an attempt to call her. We don’t have to–you can go ahead. You can sit in my chair, if you want.
SHALEIGH ANTHONY: I’m so nervous!
MELISSA: I’ll just sit here.
SHALEIGH ANTHONY: [on the phone] Hi. Would Beth be home? This is Shaleigh Anthony from DHS. Do you know where she’s at? OK. Well, can you ask her to call me when she gets in, and it’s important that I talk with her? OK. Thank you, Leiann. Bye-bye.
NARRATOR: A few hours later, Shaleigh tries again.
SHALEIGH ANTHONY: What do I need to tell her? Court hearing– [on the phone] Hi. Is Beth home? Could you just tell her that Shaleigh called? Yes, I need her–actually, could you get her to call me as soon as possible? Yeah. Yeah, she does. OK. Thank you. Bye-bye. [to Melissa] Melissa, I just called and got Randall, and I think Beth’s there and she’s just avoiding me. He’s, like, “No. Who’s calling?” I said, “Shaleigh.” And he said, “Well, I’m”–I said, “Can you tell her to please”–he said, “Do you want me to ask her to call you tomorrow?” And I said, “Well, can you please tell her to call me immediately or as soon as she can?” And he said, “Well, I don’t know what time she’s coming in. Can I get her to call you tomorrow?” So I didn’t want to say, “The sheriff’s going to be serving her tonight,” like–
MELISSA: Yeah, you shouldn’t. That would be–we really can’t tell somebody else that, anyway. That would be breaking confidentiality, so–she’ll find out when they come to the home. When the Sheriff and the PD goes to her home and she’s not there, they’ll know, but–it’s just too bad it has to happen that way.
NARRATOR: That night, a sheriff came to the house to inform Beth and her family that they would be losing Mark.
BETH: I was very pissed off, very depressed about it, in the first place, because I was told this–it wasn’t going to happen. Then they went ahead and did it anyways.
LEIANN, Mark’s Grandmother: We told her we were willing to send Markie to my mother’s to live till Beth found an apartment. Roy was willing to do the counseling. We’re trying to do the house. I mean, every one of them, we had an answer to and– ROY, Mark’s Step-Grandfather: She didn’t want to hear it.
LEIANN: She didn’t–yeah. I mean, she didn’t even give us the chance.
ROY: The damn bottom line is she could have approached it a heck of a lot different. You got to understand, we’ve talked to–dealt with a lot of caseworkers. They did not come in stuck up. They didn’t come in bull-headed. They come in and talked, like we are, and they suggested different things. She–like I said, she come in with a battering ram, basically.
NARRATOR: Despite the family’s pleas, a judge upheld DHS’s decision to remove 2-year-old Mark from his mother, Beth, and placed him in the custody of a relative. Now Beth has to say good-bye.
FAMILY MEMBER: Say, “Bye-bye, Mom.”
BETH: I love you, baby! [weeps]
SHALEIGH ANTHONY: You’re helping them. And even if they don’t realize it , you know, what you are doing is in their best interest and the children’s best interest.
FAMILY MEMBER: I know. That’s the courts for you, the state of Maine.
SHALEIGH ANTHONY: A lot of times, I have to see it as my job. I can’t take what I do personally because I know if somebody like myself come into my own life, I’d be a wreck. So I have to keep thinking that that’s them, and I’m me, and that I’m doing the best I can and I’m trying to make things safe for them. [www.pbs.org: Read Shaleigh’s interview] NARRATOR: It’s been three weeks since David Greeley took 10-year-old Matthew from his father, Keith, after a report of physical abuse. Since then, the child has been held in a hospital, still too despondent to be moved. Now David and the other principals in the case will meet to see if they can resolve the situation.
DAVID GREELEY, Caseworker: Keith’s attorney is going to maintain the position that the removal is what’s caused the trauma, and so forth. My position is there may have been some trauma involved in his removal–certainly, there was–but you can’t leave a kid in a traumatic situation with his family that’s been going on for years just because taking him into custody would be traumatic for him. That–you know, that doesn’t work. [Case management meeting]
GEOFF GOODWIN, Assistant Attorney General: First of all, sir, I don’t want you to think that we’re putting you on the spot. And the only reason we brought you in here with your client before we go in is we’re supposed to make an effort to try to resolve these things before we go in front of the judge. Then once we get into court, if we can’t resolve it, we either set it for a hearing, or we tell the judge we’ve reached an agreement.
KEITH: I understand that.
GEOFF GOODWIN: Two things we’re interested in. First of all, do you agree that there is a history in your household and with you of alcoholism and violence in the home?
KEITH: There is no violence in the home. That’s–with Matthew and I, there is no violence in the home.
DAVID GREELEY: Geoff isn’t saying specifically in the location of your home, but that there has been violence between you and Matthew.
KEITH: No, there hasn’t. Matthew and I get along good. We have had–we have no history of violence in the home.
DAVID GREELEY: No history of violence, period.
KEITH: No. With Matthew? Other than that scratch there, that occurred when I went to restrain him and wanted him to sit down, calm down–I wanted him to sit down, calm down, and he took off running–just defiant. When he went to take off, I reached to grab for his shoulder, and he got scratched. And then all of a sudden, all this.
GEOFF GOODWIN: So you could not agree to the court entering an order that, A, you’re an alcoholic, and, B–
KEITH: I did not say anything–I agree that I am an alcoholic.
GEOFF GOODWIN: All right.
KEITH: I do agree upon that. And I agree upon services, and I go to AA right steady.
GEOFF GOODWIN: Well, what is it you can’t you agree to, then? Let’s look at it that way.
KEITH: The damage that’s–is happening to my son. He’s crying right steady. He’s been tied face down in this place.
GEOFF GOODWIN: Are you suggesting, then–
KEITH: He’s doped and drugged–
GEOFF GOODWIN: Are you suggesting, then, that–
KEITH: –to where he sleeps all the time.
GEOFF GOODWIN: You think the court is going to award you custody of the child back?
JON EDWARDS, Keith’s Attorney: That is what he’s asking for.
KEITH: Why–why–why not? He can go back to school and do–and do his–and we can do our treatments.
GEOFF GOODWIN: All right. Fine. That’s obviously the deal-breaker, right here. We have to have custody of the child. [courtroom]
CLERK: All rise, please.
JUDGE: Now, preliminarily, with regard to these matters, what do you view–and I’ll go around the horn–as the fundamental, rock-bottom issues that we’re talking about here, not in general terms, but as fact-specific as you can get?
JON EDWARDS: First, we would strongly dispute the state’s characterization of the incident that they are relying on as physical abuse. Second, the client’s perception is that the child has been removed from a fairly stable environment and placed into an environment in which the emotional characteristics of the child has extremely deteriorated, to the point that he’s been put in a hospital situation and physically restrained. We do not have a stable situation for him until we–until the child is returned home, we don’t believe that the child will be getting better, due to the extreme close bond between the parent and the child.
JUDGE: And the state disagrees?
GEOFF GOODWIN: Vehemently.
NARRATOR: The judge set a hearing in one month to decide if the state will keep Matthew. If he rules for DHS, Keith will have 12 months to turn himself around or lose custody of Matthew permanently. After court, David warns Keith that he may not be able to communicate with his son until the boy is calmer.
INTERVIEWER: Are you still going to do the visit Friday?
DAVID GREELEY: We’re waiting to–that’s going to be a decision that’s made–
KEITH: See, this is a game with you! [crosstalk] This is a game! This should be– [crosstalk]
JON EDWARDS: What David is saying now is that there’s going to be no visits, no contact.
KEITH: He’s trying to say there’s no calls and now there’s no visit, is what he’s saying. You know, this is–this is totally–Matthew is–you are just destroying this little boy! And you think that’s it’s not going to come–
DAVID GREELEY: I don’t believe that.
KEITH: –back at you through him? And now you’re playing with his–you know, instead of just letting him go back to his normal medicine, get back to school, and keeping a daily–being in touch with me daily or being in touch with me weekly, whatever you wanted, just to watch Matthew’s action.
DAVID GREELEY: I get my information from people at the hospital, Keith, and it’s based on information that they’re giving me about his behaviors.
KEITH: I know.
DAVID GREELEY: OK. And they’re saying that phone contact with you is very disruptive for him.
KEITH: Because he wants to come home.
DAVID GREELEY: OK. That may be what you believe is the case and maybe what Matthew thinks, but it doesn’t change what I have to do in my conversations in talking with those people at the hospital. And they’re telling me that he–this contact, phone contact with you, is not good.
KEITH: I try to talk upbeat to him. I try to, you know, get him to–you know, to–to–you know, “Matthew, just–dear, do this best you can do.” And he says, “OK, Dad,” but then he always cries. When he hangs up, of course, his heart’s broke. But you can’t understand that! He’s a little–he’s only a 10-year-old boy that’s never had another parent. He hangs that phone up, it’s like he’s–you know, he’s just letting go of anything he–you know, that–anybody that’s ever really cared about him.
JON EDWARDS: Let’s–let’s–let’s make this a positive–
KEITH: Well, all right, here’s the positive thing. I want to–I want to see my son, my son wants to see me, and–
DAVID GREELEY: Well, that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, Keith.
JON EDWARDS: Let’s try and work back to a positive working relationship–
DAVID GREELEY: It’s traumatic. You know, I mean, you can–I can talk myself into thinking, you know, this is–this is what I do and I have to be professional about it, you know, the way a doctor is when he opens up a stomach or something, you know? You just do it because it has to be done. But you know, you–you’re aware of–of the anguish that’s going on.
NARRATOR: Shirley Mitchell has broken up with her boyfriend, Dan, in order to show DHS that she can protect her children. But as she will soon learn, that will not be enough. Her caseworker, Robin, is continuing to warn that she will seek removal of Shirley’s boys.
ROBIN WHITNEY, Caseworker: The department’s position is still that we’re asking for custody of the boys at this time, OK, but–
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: So if the judge tells you, yes, you can take them today, you’ll take my boys.
NARRATOR: DHS wants Shirley to submit to intensive therapy until she is able to acknowledge that Dan might have abused her daughter.happened.
ROBIN WHITNEY: What we’re hoping is that your individual counseling, the non-offenders group, the children being in family counseling, when that starts, that when we come to the hearing date, OK, that progress will have been made, and the department’s position will have changed to that we feel the children are safe and our position will be that we they won’t be–we won’t want them removed from the home.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: How are you going to check that progress? You guys don’t come to the house, so how you going to know if there is progress, you know?
ROBIN WHITNEY: The progress is–
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: What do you judge as progress?
ROBIN WHITNEY: The progress is, what’s going to happen is that I’m going to–Sharie Peacock, who’s your therapist, is going to share with me that you’re making progress with her, OK? I don’t need to know what you talk about in therapy, OK? What I need to know is, is that the issues that the department sees that–we feel make it unsafe for your children–if Sharie can give me a yes, no or a maybe on whether that’s something that progress can get made on.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: What she told me was that if she did get subpoenaed to court–the only way she can break my confidentiality is if she did get subpoenaed. And you guys want me to sit there and talk to her, and then tell me that it’s going to be used against me in court? But you want to know if I’m going to make progress?
ROBIN WHITNEY: I don’t want to use it against you or for you. What I want to know from her is it’s safe for the children to stay in your home. I want to know that when the children come to you about something that’s unsafe, that you believe them.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: You have the power to take my kids if I don’t say what you want to hear!
ROBIN WHITNEY: Yeah.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: How can I say what I don’t know?
NARRATOR: Despite her misgivings, Shirley has agreed to see the therapist that DHS has chosen for her.
SHARIE PEACOCK, Therapist: Hi, Shirley.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: Good morning.
SHARIE PEACOCK: Come on in.
ROBIN WHITNEY: Hi, Shirley.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: Hi.
SHARIE PEACOCK: Robin has recently sent me some information, and I’ve read over it, and I think I have a pretty good grasp of the case now, and what’s going on. So what I want to talk about with you–actually, I would like to first have Robin tell us what it is that she wants us to do here, what she would like for you to accomplish in therapy.
ROBIN WHITNEY: Yeah, well, I think, for me, the important thing is for Shirley to learn empathy for her children, for what the children are going through. I’d like for Shirley to be able to identify the needs of her children concerning safety, the mental health needs, and to be able to address those needs.
SHARIE PEACOCK: OK. Shirley, anything that you want to mention yet, or anything you want to comment on?
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: I’m being told that I’m not meeting their mental health issues, but I keep fighting all the time for them. I feel totally screwed over. You guys give me no credit, make me feel like I have done nothing for my kids! Work with me. That’s all I’ve asked for all along
SHARIE PEACOCK: That’s what I want to do. That’s exactly what I’d like to do. Are you willing to work with m
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: Yes.
SHARIE PEACOCK: OK. Good.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: But as long as I know I can trust you and that everything I tell you is not going to go to her to be used against me.
SHARIE PEACOCK: I certainly think you can trust me.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: I’m not so sure because you’re–
SHARIE PEACOCK: I hope you can. I want you to.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: –you’re in there, too, that you’re building–establishing a relationship with me, that you do have this phone contact with her.
SHARIE PEACOCK: Right. Well, Shirley, let’s not let that get in the way of making some progress here, OK?
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: I want to make progress–
SHARIE PEACOCK: It’s OK–
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: –but it’s a trust issue.
SHARIE PEACOCK: I understand. What I’ve done, Shirley, is I’ve written up a few things here. I need to go down through this with you, OK? And if you don’t agree with any of these things, you can say, “I’m not willing to look at this,” “I’m not willing to do this” or “It’s not true,” whatever you need to say. OK, take a look at that. We’ll just quickly go down through this, OK? The first one is “Attend therapy on a weekly basis.”
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: I agree.
SHARIE PEACOCK: With me, OK?
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: I agree.
SHARIE PEACOCK: All right. Good. Number two, “Address her past abuse issues and make progress in dealing with them.”
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: I agree. I was abused by my ex-husband.
SHARIE PEACOCK: OK. All right. Number three, “Understand and connect how her own past abuse effects how she parents her children.”
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: You don’t think I understand that? SHARIE PEACOCK: OK, I think we need to look at it a little more than what you have, though, from my point of view, OK? SHIRLEY MITCHELL: I’ll look at it. I’ll agree to it.
SHARIE PEACOCK: All right. Good. All right. I appreciate that.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: But if I disagree with anything you say, I’ll let you know.
SHARIE PEACOCK: I trust that you will.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: I will.
SHARIE PEACOCK: I appreciate that. OK, number 4, “Learn to parent in a healthy and responsible way, keeping her children safe.”
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: I disagree with that for the simple reason–I mean, I’ll look at it, but do you know how I parent my children? Have you ever been in my home? Have they ever done a home study on how I treat my kids? Do they know what medications my children take?
SHARIE PEACOCK: OK, we’ll look at that, too.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: This is being thrown out.
SHARIE PEACOCK: OK.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: It’s not backed up. They don’t even know.
SHARIE PEACOCK: We’ll talk about it, OK? I’m just listing the issues here that I think they want us to look at. OK, number 5, “Attend a non-offenders group at Behavioral Health Center to learn and understand how sexual abuse has negatively impacted her daughter and her other children.”
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: And I’ve agreed to do that already.
SHARIE PEACOCK: OK. Number six, “Not allow her boyfriend or anyone else who is unsafe to have contact with her children. In other words, be able to show good judgment in who she allows around her children.”
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: All right. Number six. I have never left that man alone with my children, Robin, and I have stated that to you many times. So that’s not an issue with me. He’s not around my kids. He’s never been left alone around my kids like that since all this was brought out.
SHARIE PEACOCK: OK.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: Never. She went into court and said that Dan is still living in my home. I had to sit there and listen to these lies and not be able to defend myself. ROBIN WHITNEY: Shirley, wait. I want to backtrack. Jim Conklin said that Dan was still living in your home.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: You did not correct it, did you not?
ROBIN WHITNEY: Well–
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: Did you correct it? [crosstalk]
ROBIN WHITNEY: Yes, Shirley. I said–I told Jim that that was incorrect.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: Did Jim say the correction in court?
ROBIN WHITNEY: No. No, he didn’t.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: So the court was led to believe that this man that is accused of molesting my daughter is still living in my home. Is that not true?
ROBIN WHITNEY: Well, I’m not going to speak for what–I mean, it was set for a hearing, Shirley.
SHARIE PEACOCK: What do you think we ought to do, Shirley?
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: I don’t know right yet, but I think the truth ought to be told.
SHARIE PEACOCK: OK. Remember what my role is, here, OK? I’m a therapist, OK? My role with you is not to advocate for you or to be your lawyer.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: I wouldn’t want you to. I stand on my own merit.
SHARIE PEACOCK: OK. You’ve got your own lawyer. You have people working for you in that way. OK, let’s make another appointment, all right? [www.pbs.org: National experts’ views on these cases]
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: Don’t pick March 4th because that’s my parental psychological evaluation.
SHARIE PEACOCK: All right.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: Don’t pick March 5th because–that’s a Tuesday, I believe. That is in-home counseling. Wednesday afternoons is Patrick’s counseling.
SHARIE PEACOCK: How about Thursday morning, 9:00 o’clock? Does that work for you? All right.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: As far as I know right now.
SHARIE PEACOCK: That’s March 7th. That’s March 7th.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: As far as I know right now.
SHARIE PEACOCK: OK. Good. If there’s a change in that or if there’s a problem, give me a call. We’ll re-schedule it, OK? Good. OK, you’re all set. [Bangor DHS office]
CASEWORKER: [on the phone] What I’m wondering is if you can–if you can give us someone, so that we can do this, make this work for these little girls. We’d like to keep them together. They’re 1-and-a-half and 2-and-a-half And is there any way you can loan us one of your homes? Please!
NARRATOR: Maine, with too few foster homes, faces a chronic problem of what to do with children once it removes them. In the case of these two little girls, their mother brought them in voluntarily, seeking help.
JESSICA WOOD, Placement Caseworker: The situation is the mom doesn’t have adequate housing, is placing the children with various caregivers, and they need to have a safe place while she gets her act together and can take care of them. So we’re going to help her get her act together by giving her help with housing and trying to link her up with all the appropriate resources. But in the meantime, the kids need a placement, and we’d like to keep them together. They are so little and adorable. And we have a shortage of foster homes. NARRATOR: The number of children in DHS custody has exploded. In Maine there are twice as many foster children as there were 15 years ago. The state cannot keep up. JESSICA WOOD: Do you have anything?
1st CASEWORKER: Yeah, but I can’t reach her.
JESSICA WOOD: I actually got this through Blane, but he doesn’t have anything, either. 2nd CASEWORKER: No, they’re doing respite for care. No, they’re doing respite for CHCS. No, do not place! No, no, no! This family, issues with physical discipline, so no. This ones have adopted three. Can’t do it. Then the Townsends–I have them right there–no.
1st CASEWORKER: [on the phone] Hello. It’s Jean Leonard calling back. I wasn’t able to reach Carolyn on her cell phone, so if she calls back or gets home, could you have her give me a call? JESSICA WOOD: This is an excellent resource. 2nd CASEWORKER: Yeah. The baby’s going there. JESSICA WOOD: Oh. What about these two girls? 2nd CASEWORKER: I know! JESSICA WOOD: Oh! 2nd CASEWORKER: It’s all about not separating them. JESSICA WOOD: Yeah. 2nd CASEWORKER: If she calls home or shows up at home, they’re going to have her call me, but– [on the phone] Hi, Carolyn! Hello? Hello? Cell phone. Well, I’ll just keep trying till I get a good connection.
JANEL HERSEY, Placement Caseworker: Sometimes it feels like a crapshoot. And there’s times I have delivered kids to foster homes and am sick on the way home because I know it’s not good, but I have no other place for that child. There have been times I’ve done that and said, “This child needed to stay with her parents” because her parents at least loved them, knew them, cared for them on some level. Even if there were circumstances that made their–that house unsafe, at least it wouldn’t be a complete unknown for them. It’s very difficult.
NARRATOR: The two sisters have now been in DHS for four hours, while caseworkers search for a temporary foster home.
1st CASEWORKER: [on the phone] Hi, Carolyn. This is Jean Leonard calling. I have placements for you, if you’re interested. We have two little girls. They’re 1 and–they’re 1 and 2. Yes. Well, according to the computer, your license is showing that you have two openings. OK. OK. Thanks, Carolyn. All right. Bye-bye. Carolyn said that she would stop here on her way back because she has to drive by here to go home anyway– JESSICA WOOD: Excellent. 1st CASEWORKER: –and she would pick the girls up then. JESSICA WOOD: Yay! You saved the day!
1st CASEWORKER: She doesn’t have a crib for tonight, but she has a Pack ‘N Play.
JESSICA WOOD: There are cribs up there in the hallway. Did you know that?
1st CASEWORKER: No.
JESSICA WOOD: Yeah. There are, like, three sitting up there. They’re just waiting to be used. JANEL HERSEY: Is she here yet?
1st CASEWORKER: No.
2nd CASEWORKER: Want to flip her around?
1st CASEWORKER: Here’s the mittens for the little one.
JANEL HERSEY: OK, how many DHS caseworkers does it take to get two ready to put in a van? [laughter]
NARRATOR: It’s taken four caseworkers all day to find a temporary placement for the two little girls. But for now, they have a home. Ten-year-old Matthew still does not. Older and with a history of problems, he will be a difficult placement, even when he is stable enough to leave the hospital.
DAVID GREELEY: It’s the luck of the draw, really. I mean, there’s a lot of good foster homes out there, and he might get one and he might do really well. It’s going to take a long time. He’s going to be a tough kid to deal with.
INTERVIEWER: Is there a foster family out there who can handle this?
DAVID GREELEY: I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m sure there is, but whether we’ve–whether they’re–whether we make the hook-up–
INTERVIEWER: Has he been saved, so to speak?
DAVID GREELEY: Has he?
INTERVIEWER: This young boy, has he been saved?
DAVID GREELEY: No. No, I wouldn’t say nothing’s happened but, you know, this is way early innings. There’s been a–there’s going to be a change here, and I’m now his legal guardian, and that could go for a week or that could go–or he could stay in the department until he ages out at 18. Nobody knows that, at this point. But it’s–it’s the–it’s the hope that although we’ve taken him from his father, who he loves–I mean, most kids do love their father. Whether he abuses them or whether they’re wonderful, they still love their fathers. We’ve taken him from the caregiver that has, the father that he loves, because we felt that he was unsafe. And now we have to find a place for this boy that he can have a life.
CINDY POST: [reading from form] “–have been told that DHS is trying to remove them and since DHS involvement, Patrick’s behavior has increased”–
NARRATOR: Shirley’s in therapy, but until Cindy and Robin are satisfied that she has progressed, they are still planning to seek the removal of her boys. They’re especially concerned about Patrick’s worsening behavior.
ROBIN WHITNEY: Well, Patrick has some real severe problems–
CINDY POST: Yeah.
ROBIN WHITNEY: –I mean, with aggression.
CINDY POST: Yes.
NARRATOR: Shirley has told them that Patrick’s problems stem from beatings he received from his biological father, but Cindy and Robin have a different theory.
CINDY POST: –has been that he has not been believed. His reality has not been validated.
ROBIN WHITNEY: Yeah.
NARRATOR: They believe Patrick’s problems are a result of what they see as Shirley’s stubborn refusal to believe him when he told her of Dan’s visits to his sister’s room at night.
CINDY POST: He’s been told, “What you see isn’t happening,” so it has exacerbated his issues. [case management conference]
ROBIN WHITNEY: You know, Patrick has had some severe mental health issues and some acting-out issues, and I believe some of that stems from the fact that there’s sexual activity was going on in the house. Patrick was trying to let people know about this and wasn’t believed.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: But you see [name deleted] was sitting there, saying that Pat was lying, you know? So you got one kid against another kid. Who do you believe?
ROBIN WHITNEY: Yeah. And I understand that, not knowing who to believe. But I guess my point is, if you’re not sure who to believe, make sure the children are safe. That’s why the services that I’ve put in place, Peter, are like the non-offenders group at Behavioral Health Center.
PETER BOS, Shirley’s Attorney: And–well–I don’t mean to interrupt you. You have no problems doing the services, is that right?
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: No. I’ve been doing them.
PETER BOS: OK.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: And I’ve tried to set them up for my family, way before they ever gotten involved. And I called them before for help with my children.
PETER BOS: So if the services go well–and this won’t be set for a hearing probably for a month or so, would be my guess.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: But then all that time, I’m still having it hanging over my head that they’re going to take my children away from me.
PETER BOS: It’s always hanging over your head. They could come in today or tomorrow and take the other three kids if they felt there was an immediate risk of serious harm, OK?
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: How do they know that? They’re never there. They don’t come to my home to do a home study!
PETER BOS: Well, they might get a report or something.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: I could call and say you beat one of my kids. Does that make it true?
[Cindy Post’s office] ROBIN WHITNEY: So I think she is feeling a lot of stress, so I think her current functioning is, you know, that she is overwhelmed.
CINDY POST: Yeah, she’s overwhelmed.
ROBIN WHITNEY: She’s overwhelmed with what’s–you know, what’s happening, and she’s overwhelmed with what she has to do.
CINDY POST: She’s so defended against her own feelings because if she gave in–if she recognized and allowed herself to feel all those feelings, she may not be able to function. But if the children are removed, she can explore all of that.
[case management conference] SHIRLEY MITCHELL: But it’s, like, I’ve been paying–to get to counseling, I have to hire people because my van’s unreliable. I can’t take it very often because of the steering rack. And then I have to pay gas for people to take the baby down Wednesdays to see his father, to be supervised. So there’s another financial hardship. You get an AFDC check of $116. You’re trying to put all the bills together and survive off your son’s SSI and your son’s SSA because the counselors have told me I cannot go to work till my son is stable. I want to work. I want to know I make and pay my own way. That’s something very important to me. But because you have to meet these kids’ needs, you can’t work? It put me in the hole. I almost lost my home. How many times can you be refused [unintelligible] something simple? Middle of winter, just before Christmas, my furnace breaks down. No money. You’re up all night till 3:00 o’clock in the morning, re-setting it to keep the kids warm. They give you the emergency number to DHS. You know what you get there? “We don’t fix furnaces in trailers that’s living on a lot. They might get repo-ed.” It’s, like, “Lady, it’s in the middle of the winter.” Where the hell am I going to haul my trailer off with four kids! If I had the money to move my trailer, I’d have the money to fix my furnace. Hello! So you’re caught in the system. And then you worry every day about your kids being taken away from you.
NARRATOR: In the eight months since FRONTLINE completed its filming, more than 400 new cases have come into this office. Some of the old cases have been closed. Others are still unresolved. The case of 10-year-old Matthew reached some resolution two months after he was taken from his father.
[court hearing] GEOFF GOODWIN, Assistant Attorney General: Your honor, I think we’ve reached an agreement. And I want to thank the parents, especially the father, who’s taken some very positive steps to resolve the issues here today.
NARRATOR: At a hearing to determine the boy’s fate, a deal was struck. DHS dropped the accusation of physical abuse, in return for which Keith admitted to being an alcoholic and stopped contesting his son’s removal.
JUDGE: Well, I want to commend all the parties concerned, in terms of coming up with an agreement which I think clearly is in the best interests of Matthew.
NARRATOR: Keith still had a chance to get Matthew back if he could prove himself within a year. Matthew is in a foster home and sees his father once a week. Both Matthew and Keith seem to be doing better, and reunification is still possible.
BETH: My appointment’s not until this Friday.
SHALEIGH ANTHONY: OK. This Friday?
NARRATOR: Two-year-old Mark continues to live with a relative. His mother, Beth, was given a year to convince the state to return him, but she is almost out of time. The little girls who were brought in voluntarily by their mother are now back home with her. After months of waiting, a judge finally ruled on DHS’s request to remove Shirley’s three sons. Shirley’s lawyer left a message with the decision.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: Feel like you’re walking on eggshells. [dialing into voicemail messages] I know it’s full!~ Let me at ’em!
PETER BOS: [voicemail message] Hi, Shirley. This is Peter Bos calling Thursday about 4:30 or so. We did get a decision. I don’t know whether you’ve seen it yet. Just to summarize, the boys, Patrick and Dustin, are going to stay with you. SHIRLEY MITCHELL: The boys stay with me! [name deleted] going to stay in DHS custody as long as–as long as residential treatment is required. Yes! Oh, my God! Oh, my God! I beat it!
NARRATOR: The judge ruled against DHS’s request and ordered that Shirley’s boys remain with her.
DEREK: He said we could–you could keep us–
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: Yeah!
DEREK: Me and Pat.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: How does that make you feel?
DEREK: Pretty good.
SHIRLEY MITCHELL: I’m on top of the world right now. It don’t matter, anything and everything you went through! [on screen: “After filming was completed, Shirley’s ex-boyfriend, Dan, pled guilty to molesting her daughter and is currently in prison. Shirley and her daughter are rebuilding their relationship.
» FRONTLINE/Fred Friendly Seminars
Whose Failure to Protect?
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Good evening. In this special follow-up, FRONTLINE, in cooperation with the Fred Friendly Seminars, has brought together a group of national experts and ordinary people here at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. We want our panel to help address some fundamental dilemmas posed by our nation’s child welfare system, but not in the abstract. Instead, we’ve created a realistic hypothetical case, and we’ll cast our panelists in the roles they play in real life and prod them to make the tough decisions, right here, every step of the way. What is the proper balance between saving a child and destroying a family? When should parents lose the right to raise their own children? And who gets to decide? Who, indeed? Welcome, everyone, to the state of Centralia, the city of Metropolis. And Cynthia McFadden, you have decided to move into the low-income neighborhood called Franklin Heights. It’s a–kind of a rundown place, but there’s some great housing there, and you bought a brownstone. And across the street, there’s a stoop that you watch a lot of the time. And on the stoop, you often see a couple of children, a child who looks to be, say, 8, 9 years old, and a baby who looks to be maybe a little over a year old. And you notice that in the window, a woman who you presume is the mother, is sometimes watching them, sometimes not watching them. Once you even saw that she came home and looked a little like she might have been drunk, having left the children apparently unsupervised, apparently alone. What do you think about it?
CYNTHIA McFADDEN, ABC News: I think–I’m a mother, and I’m slow to judge. I don’t know what’s going on in that house. I would be more than passingly interested.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: You a couple of months ago reported a story on child abuse, and you actually have the number of Metropolitan Child Protection Services. So what do you do? Do you make a phone call?
CYNTHIA McFADDEN: Not yet.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Do you find out more about the situation?
CYNTHIA McFADDEN: Well, I think it might be neighborly to go over and introduce myself.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Oh. So why don’t you do that?
CYNTHIA McFADDEN: Hi. I live across the street. I was just–
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Yeah, I’ve seen you. What can I do for you?
CYNTHIA McFADDEN: Well, I just thought I’d introduce myself. I have a little boy, and I–I wondered, you know, maybe we–the kids could play together some day or–
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: That–that’d be fine. Anything else?
CYNTHIA McFADDEN: No. I just wondered if everything was all right, if there’s anything I can do to–
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: It’s fine. My–my kids are fine. I’m fine. Thank you. So as you’re walking back across the street, what are you thinking?
CYNTHIA McFADDEN: I’m thinking she’s nervous. She’s one of the ugliest women I ever saw. [laughter] I’m worried about whether these kids are OK. But I’m not sufficiently worried to call someone else because I also respect the fact that this is a family. And families have different ways of operating. And maybe it’s not my way of operating, but I–I don’t know enough.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: What’s it going to take for you to call? What is the threshold? What’s the trigger?
CYNTHIA McFADDEN: You know, I guess a period of time. I guess I would have to have real reason to believe that these kids weren’t being supervised by anyone.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Let’s–let’s say you come home one night late, and it’s evident to you that the children were all night alone. The older boy was outside. The little girl hasn’t had a diaper change. The mother comes home early in the morning, clearly not at her best. What do you do then?
CYNTHIA McFADDEN: I hate to start this process going, but I dial.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: She dials. The call comes in. It’s referred to you, Trevor. Suddenly, you have a case.
TREVOR JOHN, Caseworker, New York City: Yes.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: You’ve heard some information.
TREVOR JOHN: Yes.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: And that information is what’s on your mind as you go up to the door?
TREVOR JOHN: Definitely. Definitely.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: You knock at the door?
TREVOR JOHN: Knock on the door. Mom responds, answers the door.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: And of course, she has to let you in?
TREVOR JOHN: She–if she knows her rights, no. [laughter]
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: No? So you inform her of her rights immediately, right?
TREVOR JOHN: What I do is I identify who I am.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: And how do you do that?
TREVOR JOHN: Knock, knock, knock. Good afternoon, Miss So-And-So.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Janice Smith.
TREVOR JOHN: Ms. Janice Smith. How’re you doing, Ms. Smith? My name is Trevor John. I am a child protective service worker for your local agency here. We are led to believe that there is allegations of suspected abuse or maltreatment to your two children.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: If she doesn’t want to talk to you, what do you do?
TREVOR JOHN: If she doesn’t want to talk to me, I’m going to be a little bit more persistent.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: What’s your strategy for being persistent here?
TREVOR JOHN: Well, you do the doorknob treatment. I’m going to hold my hand on the door and still try to talk to her and say, you know, “Before you close the door, this is a matter that concerns us. I’m sure you’re concerned about your children. Your neighbors are apparently watching. We’re out in the middle of the community. Why don’t we go inside so we can discuss this a little bit further in the privacy of your own home?”
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So you sort of say to her, “You don’t want your neighbors knowing about this.”
TREVOR JOHN: Right.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: “Let’s just go inside.”
TREVOR JOHN: Right.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: That gets you in the door?
TREVOR JOHN: Yes.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So there you are inside the apartment.
TREVOR JOHN: Right.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: What do you look for? Where–where are your eyes going, at this point?
TREVOR JOHN: My–my eyes are rolling around like–like numbers during the big draw for the $50 million Lotto. [laughter] You know, you have the ability to see and perceive everything. Depending on the entrance, I’ve already identified what’s in the hallway. I will have already seen that–you know, that she has no drapes in her window, from the outside. I walk up to the stairs now, and I see that the stairs are rickety and run-down. I’m actually in the apartment now, and there might be toys scattered around, clothes scattered around, not sufficient furniture. If she permits me to go so far, I will inform her about what, actually, we have. You know, “Can you explain you think is going on? What–what–what is the problem? Do you”–
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: I lost my job. I lost my job. I’m trying to keep this house together. My kids are fine. I’m sorry it’s a mess. I didn’t realize you were coming right now.
TREVOR JOHN: We have a report stating that your children were left home unattended. You know, if–are you in need of child–
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: I told you everything.
TREVOR JOHN: I don’t–
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: I’m looking for a job.
TREVOR JOHN: You’re looking for a job. OK, so–
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So let’s just say that Janice is unresponsive. Your conversation is short with her. You learn pretty much what I’ve told you.
TREVOR JOHN: Right.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Let me tell you what you see. You see a glass coffee table, broken. It’s been taped together with duct tape. It’s still rickety, sharp edges. In the kitchen you find some beer, some hot dogs, some crackers. There’s milk in the refrigerator, but really not much else. You see on the dresser a bag of something that looks like pot and a big half-gallon bottle of vodka.
TREVOR JOHN: I see something that looks like pot?
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: You see something that’s pot–I mean, you–you’ve done this before.
TREVOR JOHN: Right.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: You run into the older boy. His name is Ben. And he says, “I take care of Mom. Everything’s fine. I take care of Mom. I take care of my sister.”
TREVOR JOHN: Not leaving the home, I definitely want to speak to that older boy, Ben. I’m going to ask Mom for her permission, and based on what Ben tells me, is when I’m going to now think about my next step.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: All right, you think about that next step. Sandra, what does it feel like to have someone from this suddenly powerful agency standing in your apartment, doing these things?
SANDRA JIMENEZ, Advocate for Birth Parents: Very frightening. You’re–you’re scared. You don’t want to disclose because you know that you’re at risk of losing your child and–
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Would you let Trevor talk to your son, Ben?
SANDRA JIMENEZ: I think that I–I don’t have a choice because I don’t know my rights. So–authority figure. More than likely, I’m not–I’m going to let him talk to my child. However, if I was in another neighborhood with more money, I would be on the phone to my attorney the minute somebody knocked on my door to talk about my kids.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So Janice is not calling her attorney, at least in your experience.
SANDRA JIMENEZ: Janice doesn’t have money to buy other than franks and crackers, so I doubt it.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Why don’t you just say, “Please get out of here”?
SANDRA JIMENEZ: Because in my neighborhood, we’re used to that. We’re used to that drill of everybody from public assistance to the doctors to the social workers asking us questions and us just disclosing. It’s just the norm in my neighborhood.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Let’s back up for a moment. We’ve all met Trevor. He’s the caseworker here. But Richard Gelles, who’s likely to be the caseworker in a case like this?
Dean RICHARD GELLES, U. Penn. School of Social Work: Someone who has a college degree.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: A degree in what?
Dean RICHARD GELLES: Anything.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: In anything?
Dean RICHARD GELLES: Philosophy, history, art history.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Art history?
Dean RICHARD GELLES: That’s common. If we’re in some states, it’s someone with four years of a high school education and two years of vocational training and no professional training in social work, psychology.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Is this a career? Is this a job they’ve likely to had–to have had for a while?
Dean RICHARD GELLES: No. No.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: No?
Dean RICHARD GELLES: This is a way-station. You’ll do it sometimes two days, sometimes two years, sometimes four years. But you don’t age in this job.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: How many cases does a typical caseworker have?
Dean RICHARD GELLES: Trevor could have as few as eight investigations to be doing. He could have as many as 70 to 80 children that he has some level of responsibility for. And at best, he has five weeks of training, three of which taught him how to fill out forms.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So you’re still in the apartment.
TREVOR JOHN: Yes.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: You’re looking around. You’ve seen all the things. You’ve heard the responses from the individuals. But right now, standing in that apartment, do you take the kids?
TREVOR JOHN: That’s a tough question.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: It’s looking bad.
TREVOR JOHN: It’s looking really bad. It’s looking really bad.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Barbara Alexander, you’re Trevor’s supervisor. I’m assuming you’re going to have a discussion about the site visit that you’ve just had and this case that, I’m assuming, is now open. Have that discussion. TREVOR JOHN: I’m down the street from Mrs. Smith’s house. BARBARA ALEXANDER, Fmr. Sup., Florida Dept. of Children and Families: OK. TREVOR JOHN: With a little bit of reluctance, she did allow me to enter the home. What I’m seeing is that the children are not tidy. The house is not kept. I think there is weed in the house. There is glass fragments of a table that is jagged. It’s not really well-put-together. And my concern is that this 2-year-old may fall into this table. What she stated is that she’s lost her job. So I’m led to believe that she does leave the children alone, unattended, to either look for a job or to supplement her income in some sort of way. My gut feeling states that there is a–there might be a problem leaving these children here. BARBARA ALEXANDER: OK. Well, we’ll have to go back in. We’ll have to go back in because you’ve told me there is an immediate danger with this jagged glass edge, I mean, so that we’re going to have to go back in and take care of that situation. And I would approach her to see if she has family around that could help her right now, immediately, while we get more information. We need to know what the–who lives in the home. We need to know what the–if there’s any criminal history in the home. And we need to know what the history of this family is. TREVOR JOHN: I don’t think that Ms. Smith will allow me to further this investigation. I think that we’re done talking, at this moment. And I need direction and–and as far as–well, there’s drugs. Should I call the police? But then, what if she’s arrested? The children are still there. BARBARA ALEXANDER: Well, I’m not ready to go in and–and take the police and–you know, I think at this point, we need to go back in, and we need to make sure that she understands that this is a serious situation because there are voluntary services that perhaps she would be open to, if she were in a state of mind that she could listen to this. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So a serious discussion about a case that looks, on the surface, to be serious, but not necessarily an immediate reason to pull children out of a home. Eloise, as head of the agency here, this is a neglect case, correct? ELOISE ANDERSON, Fmr. Dir. CA Dept. of Social Services: Sounds like it. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: What’s the mission of your agency in a case like this? ELOISE ANDERSON: Well, typically, we have two missions. One is the safety of the child, which is a police mission, and the other one is the welfare of the child, which is sort of a social work mission. And often they collide. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Dorothy Roberts, can that work? In the same agency? DOROTHY ROBERTS, Northwestern Univ. Law School: I don’t think it works very well. It is a conflict, and families know it. They perceive, usually, these agencies as being invading enemies, that they wouldn’t just be offered services, that there would be this threat of removing children. And as long as that threat is dangling over families, they will not really believe that the agency is there to help them. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Let’s just say that after the initial visit and initial discussion, a case was opened. Services were begun to be offered. You go back for some other visits. And on one surprise visit, you’re introduced to someone named Kurt, who’s in the apartment. And you determine that this Kurt is Janice’s boyfriend. And you also learn in the course of your investigation that Janice has called the cops a couple of times to get him out of the apartment because he’s threatened or actually beaten her. You see the welt on her face. And finally, you discover that he was convicted 10 years ago, when he was 24, of having sex with a 13-year-old. Trevor, what do you do with that information? TREVOR JOHN: Ms. Alexander, I saw Janice. She does have a bruise over her eye. It’s swollen. It’s black and blue. Kurt, her alleged paramour, has a history of sex abuse. He was convicted, and he served some time for sexually abusing a minor. BARBARA ALEXANDER: And what is the mother’s attitude about him? TREVOR JOHN: She said–she denounces the situation. “Oh, that girl was lying. It was in the past. Yes, he told me about it. I know that he did some time.” BARBARA ALEXANDER: That 13-year-old girl– TREVOR JOHN: The 13-year-old. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: That’s a fairly significant revelation. BARBARA ALEXANDER: That’s a fairly significant revelation. And he can’t be in the home. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: He can’t be in the home? BARBARA ALEXANDER: He can’t be in the home. I can’t tell Mom that she can’t see him, but I’m–you know– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: How do you tell Janice that? What do you say? BARBARA ALEXANDER: Well, at this point, I’m still–you know, I’m still willing for the children to remain with Mom. But at this point, there needs to be more than just a service. There needs to be more than just counseling or day care. There needs to be, you know, a way to bring services together to the table, to have– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: But you say services–this would be the boyfriend removal service? [laughter] BARBARA ALEXANDER: No, no, no. That–no, that’s not even an issue. That man can’t live in the home. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: But how–how do you get them–how do you get them separated? BARBARA ALEXANDER: Well, I mean, that man just simply cannot live in the home. And if court–if it takes taking this case to court, then we will. TREVOR JOHN, Caseworker, New York City: Then again, what’s the presumption of innocence? If this guy has already served his debt to society that he did something 10 years ago, he has now–he has this burden to bear for the rest of his life, and–and every person that he may so get involved with? He’s 34, not 24, so it is understandable that any woman that he may get involved with will have a child. So now are we to prevent every person that he comes into contact with that he–that they shouldn’t have children? ELOISE ANDERSON: One of the things that is–that we need to be concerned about is the child under 6 in the house who is not the child of Kurt, and Kurt has been in prison. Those are big flags for abuse of the child. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So you’d remove? ELOISE ANDERSON: No, I would be calling in community services. And if he’s on probation, I’d be calling probation in to be working with him. If not, I’d be calling male groups in to work with him. One of the things that I want to make sure is that his behavior is not going to put the child in danger. So I’ve got two sets of issues that I’d be concerned about. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: And if none of the services split up Kurt and Janice, if none of the services work, if he doesn’t want to do anger management, if she wants him in the house no matter what, what do you do, Barbara? BARBARA ALEXANDER, Fmr. Sup., Florida Dept. of Children and Families: Depends on the–what happens with him. I mean, did the domestic violence continue? Do we check, and the police have been back out to the house Saturday night and break up yet another fight? JOHN HOCKENBERRY: The police arrive on the scene one night, and they observe a fight in action. And a wine bottle has been broken against the wall. The fight occurred in front of the children, and the– BARBARA ALEXANDER: OK, that’s it. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: –police observed glass shards–glass shards–well, no, this is just– BARBARA ALEXANDER: Yeah, that’s it. Kids are coming out, at this point. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: This just in– BARBARA ALEXANDER: I’m sorry, but the kids are now coming out, and they’re going to go, hopefully, if there’s relatives around–I mean, if this is going to continue and the children are there in front of the violence, then Mom either has to take this situation seriously, or–or we will detain the children. Even if you don’t keep the children out of the home for a great length of time, we will still get court ordered–we’re going–going to now move from voluntary to court-ordered services. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So we’ve gone from– BARBARA ALEXANDER: The violence can’t continue. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: We’ve gone from stories about violence to police actually observe a fight where glass is broken– BARBARA ALEXANDER: In the home. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: –in front of the kids. BARBARA ALEXANDER: Glass broken. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: That’s your trigger to remove the kids. BARBARA ALEXANDER: Yeah. If we’ve tried the counseling, we’ve tried the anger management, and now there’s broken wine bottles and police intervention, and the kids are there in the home in the middle of all this, then nothing’s getting better. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Grounds for removal, according to you folks. What do you make of the timing of the agency so far in its intervention? Dean RICHARD GELLES, U. Penn. School of Social Work: Terrible. Just awful. And it’s–this is child welfare at its absolute worst. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Why? I mean– Dean RICHARD GELLES: Because the incremental red flags are building up, but you’re waiting for some cataclysmic event, and then you react. On the one hand, if the risk factors are there, you don’t need the broken glass to make the decision. On the other hand, the broken glass is not yet a significant enough indicator that the children are at risk, that pulling them out, putting them in a temporary placement and starting that whole process up is going to be to their advantage. And that’s– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: But you’re saying they were too early. They were too late? Dean RICHARD GELLES: Yeah– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: They were both? Dean RICHARD GELLES: They did–yeah, they were too early and they were too late. [laughter] That is exactly what I’m saying. If the risk factors tip the scale, you don’t need that cataclysmic event. But if the risk factors don’t tip the scale, the cataclysmic event isn’t enough. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: But you think there were enough risk factors and that– Dean RICHARD GELLES: Well– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: –the kids should have been taken out before the cataclysmic event. Dean RICHARD GELLES: I am beginning to see this case move into the red zone. And I’m working real hard with Mom to– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: And the risk factors, as far as you’re concerned, were what? Dean RICHARD GELLES: First of all, the counseling and anger management, the research community knows isn’t going to work on this guy, anyway. That’s just a delaying tactic. The alcohol, the neglect, the occurrence of domestic violence mitigates the effectiveness of community services. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So those three things– Dean RICHARD GELLES: The services that might have worked on her–or for her, or helped her–become very diminished and near useless, once domestic violence enters into the picture. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So before the bottle, there was enough information, in your view, to take the kids out. Cynthia, consider what you set in motion here with your phone call. CYNTHIA McFADDEN, ABC News: I mean, I don’t know whether I did the right thing or not, I have to tell you. At this point, I don’t know whether I did the right thing. You know, I’m terribly–I don’t really care about Mom very much, I have to tell you. Janice is of very little interest to me. But I am very interested in these kids. And my guess is that, you know, despite the fact that I might not think very much of Janice, these children love her and want to be with her, and that the parade of horribles we’re about to embark on, by putting them in some sort of foster situation, is not pretty. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: OK, Ron, the children are being taken. Brittany and Ben are now being removed from Janice’s house. What’s that like? RONALD RICHTER, Legal Aid Society of New York: Horrifying. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: What’s happening? RONALD RICHTER: They are unsure about where they’re going. They are unsure about who is in charge. They don’t know where their mother is. And so the children are going to be experiencing trauma like they’ve never experienced before. CYNTHIA McFADDEN: You’re saying they’re less threatened by the wine bottle than they are by the Department of Child Welfare, at this point. RONALD RICHTER: Yeah, but remember, this is the environment in which these children have grown up, ostensibly. So they are probably reasonably comfortable with the situation that we’ve been talking about. And in all likelihood, they want to stay there. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Rose, you know what it’s like for an 8 or 9-year-old to be taken from their home, right? ROSE GARLAND, Former Foster Child: Yeah, I know what it’s like for a 3-year-old. And from all of the homes that I’ve been in, it’s a very hard thing. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So who comes? What do they look like? What do they say? What happens? ROSE GARLAND: First of all, what happens is you get a caseworker who you don’t know. You know, you–you know, you may have seen them–you may have seen them talking to the adults. You know, you’re just–you’re just a kid. You’re not really the important thing here, not that you can really tell. They–the point of taking you away is horrible because you don’t–you don’t understand what’s going on. You don’t–you don’t see that things are bad. You know, you really don’t. You think, “Well, why is this happening?” You blame yourself. You know, I–if I had taken better care of my mother, if I had taken better care of my brother–you know, as a kid, you know, you think things like that. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: What did the people who came to get you tell you about what was happening? ROSE GARLAND: They would–they would make it false cheery, you know? “Oh, we’re going to take you to a new home. You’re just going to love it. We’ve got the nicest people.” You know, “You’re going to be able to go to a new school. You’re going to,” you know, “have new friends.” But it–but you sense this note of falseness that they are not telling you the truth, you know, because the truth of it is that you’re so hurt and so destroyed on the inside that they’re–they’re almost a monster to you because they don’t–they’re strangers to you, and they’re–they’re making up stories, when you knew–at least, you thought you know that what you had before was just fine with you. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: And you’re looking around your own home, and you’re seeing all the mess that everybody else sees, and the disarray. And you’re saying– ROSE GARLAND: It’s home, you know? It–it’s home. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: But the child is also being taken from a place where there’s a whole list of reasons why they might not be safe. Now the question is, where do they go? In this particular case, calls were made, foster care options are found. Marcia, what are they likely to be? MARCIA ROBINSON LOWRY, Children’s Rights, Inc.: Well, some of them are actually incredibly wonderful. There are some really saint-like people providing foster care services. Some of them are not, and foster homes nationally are very overcrowded. So the odds are that the child is–the children are going to go into a foster home that has more kids than you would be satisfied in a biological family home. And these kids may be with kids who are violent. They may be with kids who’ve been in the system longer. And these–these two little kids who are just coming in, the 9 and the 1-year-old, are now in an environment where they’re in, in fact, some moderate danger from the other kids in the home. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Are they likely allowed to be together? Quickly? MARCIA ROBINSON LOWRY: No. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Well let’s talk about foster care for a moment. Congressman, in your district, this is–where all of this is taking place, what do you make of the foster care resources in that district, and particularly the pricetag? Rep. GEORGE MILLER (D), California: Well, what I make of them is that they’re obviously not adequate. There isn’t an outcome that’s been discussed in this case, or in other cases in our home town here, where the outcomes are very good. We’ve got a half a million children somewhere in this system. We’ll cut a lot of federal checks for the support and the maintenance of those children. We probably won’t know where a good portion of them really and truly are or who they’re with or what kind of care they’re getting. And as I talk to these people–because I know them, I’m interested in the system, we talk all the time about how they’re doing–every one of them exhales when they think about taking a child away from the family. Every one of them knows what that means. And yet in this situation, they had to make that decision. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: All right. The toughest decision they make is to take kids, in your view. Then what are the services like for someone like Janice to be a better mom, to keep the system from having to take the kids? Rep. GEORGE MILLER: Well– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: What are the those services like? Rep. GEORGE MILLER: Well, in our town–in our town, we have community services, but the question is whether or not Janice can access those. I don’t know if she has a car. I don’t know if they’re in her part of town. I don’t know whether she has the ability to leave her children in a safe place while she tries to access those services. This isn’t a neat little row of services where you go, or this isn’t one-stop-shopping. This isn’t necessarily available when you’re available. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Are you spending as much on these services as you do on, say, foster care? Rep. GEORGE MILLER: No. No. We’re spending a lot more to maintain the children. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: It’s easier to take children and place them in foster care than it is to get services to help a mom in trouble? Rep. GEORGE MILLER: Yes. It’s much easier– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: That’s– Rep. GEORGE MILLER: –to go in to grab– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Look at all the nods! Rep. GEORGE MILLER: –grab this kid or–her and her–the brother and the sister, get them into placement, and then get federal dollars flowing for the placement. And if you can hold on to that placement, you’ve probably won. But the fact is, that placement will be interrupted and you will move to another placement. And you will go through that trauma again of breaking that bond or finding services. So you’re really talking about a system that’s– Chief Justice KATHLEEN BLATZ, Minnesota Supreme Court: But I can get– Rep. GEORGE MILLER: –that is–that is in constant chaos. Chief Justice KATHLEEN BLATZ: I just think the bottom line is we’ve got other priorities in this country besides children. We talk a good game about protecting kids, but when it comes right down to protecting kids and working with families in a meaningful way–not all services for all families, because some families are simply not able. They can’t take care of those kids. We’ve got to make decisions to get kids into permanent homes, not foster care from 3 years of age to 18, get kids into permanent homes. And that is not just unified services. It’s getting them into foster care and getting them out of foster care. I say we have too many kids in dangerous situations, period, and too many kids that aren’t getting into permanency. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Let’s talk about that for moment because that’s a very interesting term, “permanency.” It turns out in our case, Janice, that the removal of her children and their placement in foster care started a clock ticking. And it’s a timeline that goes from the removal of her children to the consideration of a far more awesome power of the government, and that is taking her parental rights away. It’s called the permanency hearing. And let’s talk about what happens to those kids and that mom as we go down this timeline. First Ben. Now, Ben, 8 years old, now 9, is diagnosed to be clinically depressed. His first foster care situation does not turn out well. The foster family says, “I can’t–I can’t keep this kid.” This foster home wants Ben out. Well, first of all, how likely is that? We’re talking about a 9-year-old kid– PANELISTS: Very likely. It’s very likely. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Very likely. He’s now facing the prospect of bouncing from foster home to foster home. Rose, what’s in Ben’s future? ROSE GARLAND, Former Foster Child: OK. Now, I know that there are good foster families out there, OK? But I also know that every foster kid that I have ever talked to, including myself, have been abused in foster homes. And I’m talking physically, emotionally and sexually. That may not be the case for every child, but it was the case for me. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Marcia, is this realistic? I mean, that’s about as bleak an assessment as I’ve ever heard. Is that realistic? MARCIA ROBINSON LOWRY, Children’s Rights, Inc.: It is–unfortunately, it is realistic. And one of the tremendous ironies here is that we’re spending $20 billion a year on a system that’s producing this kind of a result. The system doesn’t pay attention. The workers don’t visit the kids. The kids go into a foster home, and if the kid is really lucky, the kid has hit a wonderful foster parent, and everything’s great. If the kid’s in bad luck, then they haven’t, and they’re, in fact, in danger. But the workers don’t know the difference because they’re not visiting the kids in the homes. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Well, Ron, as a child advocate, what do you do to help someone like that? RONALD RICHTER, Legal Aid Society of New York: I think that we probably want to figure out how to avoid long-term care for Ben. It sounded to me, based upon what we discussed before, that, on some levels, his mother, Janice, seems quite workable and that she did respond to certain services. Maybe we can go back and think about putting together a realistic plan that might ensure what I think Ben probably wants, which is to be reunited with his mother as quickly as possible– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So your mission would be to maintain the connection– RONALD RICHTER: Critical! JOHN HOCKENBERRY: — between the parent and the child, regardless of the situation. And while Ben may be having a bad situation–let me tell you about Brittany for a moment. Brittany found a foster care placement with a family who at first was given Brittany because the original family didn’t want a baby in the house. But this family, the Newhouses, wanted a baby and took in Brittany and fell in love with her. And they’ve actually expressed an interest in keeping Brittany for quite a long time, Judge Blatz. Chief Justice KATHLEEN BLATZ: Why not try to find a relative, if it’s appropriate–that’s what many states look for–or another home that if it doesn’t work out with Mom or Dad, that that kid can then remain in that home. The old way of thinking–and still what a lot of adults would like–is God forbid, don’t get attached to that child. Don’t–don’t want to love that child, and child, don’t love the parent. Let’s just keep moving kids, so nobody’s, you know, attached to anybody. And then parents who are found then to be abusive won’t have to worry about the competition. Most parents are reunified with their kids. But by God, if we’re not going to do that for a kid, let’s hope that they’re not going to be in all these disruptive placements. We ought to be looking for people who would be willing to keep that child, if it fails. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Well, let’s hope. Quickly, from Sandra. Janice. How’s Janice feeling right now, months after the removal of her kids? Ben is bouncing around. Brittany has found possibly a home that’s very, very positive. What’s the mom going through, at this point? What are you going through? SANDRA JIMENEZ, Advocate for Birth Parents: Well, right now, hopefully, the right services are in place, and I’m trying to–I’m saying, you know, these folks are going to, hopefully, give me a chance and believe that I can change. How do you know when it’s that time that that person is going to change? JOHN HOCKENBERRY: In your case, how long did it take? SANDRA JIMENEZ: It took me about a year-and-a-half–actually, 17 months, while I was in treatment to, you know, get my act together and learn a new way of thinking. Counseling helped me, people saying, “I’m so proud of you. You’re doing great. How can I help you?” I had never heard that, as a child, you know, myself. How can you give, as a mother, what you’ve never received yourself? JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Well, time is passing, and the permanency hearing is about one month away. But we turn, suddenly, as much of the nation does, to another child, a 3-year-old girl named Ashley, all of a sudden. Little Ashley was removed from her mother in a situation that’s quite similar to Janice’s. And after two years of various services, various classes, some of which you have just described, she was returned to her mother. That was the permanency in her case. Today, two weeks after she was returned, Ashley is found dead, brutally beaten. Reports say she was burned. One report says she was stuffed in a box–her body–all by a boyfriend of Ashley’s mother. An outraged neighbor tells a local TV reporter that she warned Ashley’s child protection caseworker about the boyfriend a week earlier but was ignored. So Cynthia, you’re the anchor of the “Metropolis Evening News.” What do you do? CYNTHIA McFADDEN, ABC News: Well, it probably leads our newscast that night. We want to be all over this story. We want to know who was responsible at the Department of Child Welfare. We want to know names. We want to know caseworkers. We want to know everything we can know about the family itself. We want pictures. It’s a visual medium. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: What about her neighbors? CYNTHIA McFADDEN: Our reporters will be instructed to cover it like white on rice. Yeah. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: And it sounded like the thing that was most important to you–and correct me if I’m wrong–was getting to the child welfare person–I think I’m quoting you–“who was responsible.” CYNTHIA McFADDEN: Well, we–there’s plenty of responsibility to go around here– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Is that the title of your coverage, “Plenty of responsibility to go around here”? CYNTHIA McFADDEN: “Who Killed Ashley?” is probably the title of our piece that night. And we will be flinging blame in many directions, and–and probably without–obviously, without knowing the full set of facts. But we will be–we’ll be asking a lot of questions. Our lawyers will make certain that we don’t actually accuse anyone of anything. We’ll use a lot of “alleged”–you know, “alleged” in our reporting to make sure that we don’t get sued. But we–you’ll certainly know at the end of the broadcast, I would guess, that there are–you know, that heads may roll at the department. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Who killed Ashley? Of course, we know it was the boyfriend who killed Ashley, but we also know it was a caseworker who was warned by a neighbor that the boyfriend wasn’t a stellar individual and that possibly Ashley was in danger. A lot of rumor and information swirling around the coverage, suggesting that the government didn’t do what it supposed to do. Caseworker was warned, caseworker didn’t take action. When a case like this breaks what’s it like to do your job? What’s it like to show up at a door? What’s it like to interview people, to do what you do? TREVOR JOHN, Caseworker, New York City: It’s total turmoil. Everybody is expecting more–to be more efficient than you probably had been already, on top of the 30 cases that you probably have been dealing with now. Today you have to go see those 30 cases. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Cynthia McFadden said, “Heads will roll in the department.” Eloise, you’re running the department. Heads will roll? ELOISE ANDERSON, Fmr. Dir. CA Dept. of Social Services: Probably, in this case, depending on how I handle it, what–what really went on, why the decision to keep the child there or return the child may be a firing decision, all the way from the bottom to the top. But typically, what people do in this position is that–all crap rolls downhill. Where it really gets dumped on is the caseworker, which is where it shouldn’t get dumped on because there’s a lot of people in this decision-making line that helped make that decision, and they’re not alone. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So for the last hour or so, we’ve all been agonizing over the little cogs and wheels in this system to try to protect the kids and protect the mother and provide services. And all of a sudden, this case happens and a sledgehammer comes down on the watch. And what do we do now, Congressman? Rep. GEORGE MILLER: Somebody will stand up in Congress and say, “No children should be sent back to their homes.” JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Are you that person? Rep. GEORGE MILLER: No. No. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: You sure? Rep. GEORGE MILLER: No, because I’ve listened to how this decision’s been made. I’ve been working in this field for 25 years. And I know that these people are going to be second-guessed, whether they leave the child in the home or they don’t leave the child home. The only people that don’t know it are the politicians because they’ll say it time and again. And you know, the next time when a child’s taken out of the home, they’ll say, “No child should be taken away from the natural parents.” So everybody knows that this is just going to ricochet around the system because we’ve been doing that now for the last 30 years. The system has always been driven by a scandal. The system has been driven by a tragedy. It hasn’t been driven by analyzing the decisions that all these people had to make and say, “How do you make this really work?” because this system is–is trying to survive– 70 caseloads? What’s that? Two parents. That’s 140 people you got to talk to. Two kids. You know, now we’re up to 280 people you got to talk to. You want to talk to the grandmothers. You want to interview the neighbors. You want to talk to this person. What is this, God over here? TREVOR JOHN, Caseworker, New York City: Thank you. BARBARA ALEXANDER, Fmr. Sup., Florida Dept. of Children and Families: There are always going to be people who, no matter what decision you make, whether to remove a child, keep a child, return a child–no matter what decision you make, there will probably always be, unfortunately, children who get harmed by sick adults. And then we have– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: There will probably– BARBARA ALEXANDER: — to accept that we are– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: — always be– BARBARA ALEXANDER: Caseworkers are not God. [crosstalk] JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Everyone of you believes that? There will always be– PANELIST: No, but you have to go see the children. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: There will always be children who die in the custody of the state in the system. [crosstalk] Is that what you–you believe it? Is anybody going to say that at a news conference? Anybody going to say that? BARBARA ALEXANDER: No, and there are caseworkers who make bad decisions. [crosstalk] JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Before we leave–Dorothy, I’m interested. What is the effect of a case like this on Janice? An Ashley case, the coverage from Cynthia–what happens to a case like Janice, that’s sort of in the middle of things? DOROTHY ROBERTS, Northwestern Univ. Law School: Well, I think already, contrary to what some people have said, the pressure is to move Janice’s kids into a permanent–which increasingly means adoptive–home. Now it’s going to be even a greater pressure to do that because caseworkers are going to be terrified that if they return the children to Janice, she might do something or Kurt might do something to harm the children. And then it’s going to be their heads that are going to roll. That doesn’t make the news. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So the Ashley case works against Janice. DOROTHY ROBERTS: Definitely. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: All right. Permanency. We are there. Against this backdrop of little Ashley’s death, Janice Smith, Brittany Smith and Ben Smith have their permanency hearing. But let’s find out why the hearing exists. It’s because of a federal law, the Adoption and Safe Families Act. All the timelines, all these hearings are because of that act. You helped write that act. What is the mission here? What’s the goal? Dean RICHARD GELLES, U. Penn. School of Social Work: The mission is to take down the obstacles to children having permanency. It attacks the system at one of its key vulnerabilities, and that is not making decisions that turn into decisions made. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So you’re saying obstacles to permanency are kids bouncing around in foster care, remaining in limbo for an indeterminate period of time. Dean RICHARD GELLES: No. Actually, I’m saying obstacles to permanency are making good decisions in a child’s sense of time, so you don’t hold a child’s development hostage while you’re waiting for change that may not happen. At the same time. you’re balancing the parent’s constitutional rights to due process. I don’t want to see what I saw last night and the day before and the day before, and that is case plan after case plan that says, “Long-term foster care is the case plan.” JOHN HOCKENBERRY: That sounds like a good idea, Dorothy Roberts. DOROTHY ROBERTS: Well, it’s a good idea except that the way that ASFA came about was reaction to a case just like Ashley’s. And many people interpret it as an incentive toward permanency, meaning adoption. And for some kids who have a good relationship with their parents, where there is hope for the family being reunited, it may take longer than a year, unfortunately, in foster care to reunite the family. But that still should be the goal. So it’s not always the case that children should be moved on to adoptive homes. I think that that doesn’t give enough value to the birth family, where very often, the children were moved away needlessly because there weren’t services in place long before there were problems that caused the removal. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Well, we’re at the permanency hearing. And let’s catch you up on some of the facts in Janice’s case. Janice has had a rocky time. She went through a substance abuse program, failed out of it, was drinking heavily, didn’t attend the services that were offered. She was very traumatized over being removed from her kids. There was a point at which Brittany didn’t even recognize her anymore, and that caused a binge of drinking. But for the last six weeks, it appears that Janice is doing well in a substance abuse program. She’s still with Kurt occasionally. There’s beer in the refrigerator, at least on one site visit. Ben is in a large institution, being treated for his depression, unable to be placed in foster care. And the Newhouses have told the agency that they want to adopt little Brittany. You’re the child advocate here. Do you represent both kids? And what are their interests, and how do you resolve them? RONALD RICHTER: Well, they may have somewhat separate interests. The difficulty is that Ben is probably going to be able to communicate to me pretty clearly what he wants. And I’m pretty certain that he doesn’t want to be in an institution. And so since it doesn’t appear that the system has found him even the beginnings of what could may one day be a permanent home, I can’t see any reason why we wouldn’t be focusing our planning attention on working with Janice. So– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: But Mrs. Newhouse is Mommy to Brittany. RONALD RICHTER: Right. Now, that doesn’t mean that as soon as a child gets placed on a good home that may be pre-adoptive, the Newhouses can start planning a family. I mean, we still have Janice, and we still have a critical relationship. So on behalf of these two children, at this point in their experience in the system, it is my obligation to focus the system’s energy and the court’s attention on what we can do to be realistic about planning for the reunification of Janice, Brittany and Ben. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: That’s your recommendation. Eloise, what’s your recommendation? ELOISE ANDERSON, Fmr. Dir. CA Dept. of Social Services: My recommendation is to hold out permanency for a while because Momma would– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Hold out for a while? How long? ELOISE ANDERSON: I’d probably be having a conversation with her counselors to see where she is in her– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Six weeks. She’s done all right. ELOISE ANDERSON: — in her–well, you know, you take her kids away from her, and you expect, in the taking, that there’s no trauma to her, that this didn’t hurt. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: I didn’t say that. ELOISE ANDERSON: I mean, she’s–well, she’s already a substance abuser, and we take her kids away. What do you think she’s going to do? Go out and– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: The kids have been taken for a year. You took them for a year. How long are they going to stay in foster care? ELOISE ANDERSON: Hopefully, not very long, but I will be trying to work on putting those kids back with Mom. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So reunification. ELOISE ANDERSON: That’s with the resources I would be doing. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: What’s your recommendation? Dean RICHARD GELLES, U. Penn. School of Social Work: I’m going to call my good friend, Dorothy. [laughter] And I know what she’s going to tell me. I’m going to lay out my case about the developmental needs of the children. And I’m going to be very concerned about Brittany’s developmental needs and Brittany’s attachment. And I do know what Dorothy’s going to tell me. She is going to tell me, “You’ve got no chance of getting a termination on this one.” The Newhouses may be good parents, but this is not about having a good parent versus a not-good parent. This is about Janice being inadequate. And despite the fact that it’s going to give me a sleepless night, I’m quite sure Dorothy’s going to tell me, “You should get a six-month continuation. You should ask for compelling reasons, under the terms of the law, because it would be in the child’s best interest to make sure that they can’t be reunified, and extend this six-week period.” JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Barbara and Trevor, what’s your recommendation here? DOROTHY ROBERTS, Northwestern Univ. Law School: Can I just make a correction? Since he’s telling what I’m going to say– Dean RICHARD GELLES: Right, that’s a more appropriate– JOHN HOCKENBERRY: If you guys say “my good friend” one more time, I’m going to think you’re enemies. [laughter] DOROTHY ROBERTS: Well, he–yeah, but– Dean RICHARD GELLES: We don’t agree on actually much. DOROTHY ROBERTS: We don’t agree on very much. That’s why he’s saying that. I would say that’s what should happen. There should not be termination of parental rights in this case. But I’m not so sure, under the new pressures that the federal law creates to speed up termination, the popularity of pushing these children into adoptive homes, wouldn’t lead a judge to terminate parental rights in this case simply because time has gone on, not because Janice could never be a good mother, not because there–the children were abused in any way, to begin with, but just because too much time has elapsed. And so some judges will look at a list. Did Janice do everything on the list? And if Janice failed to do something on the list, the judge might say, “Sorry, your time is up. I’m going to terminate parental rights.” CYNTHIA McFADDEN, ABC News: So I have to tell you, as an adopted person, I am really flipped out by listening to all of you. I mean, Brittany, it seems to me, is in a vastly different position than Ben. You say Brittany’s family is this biological mother she couldn’t recognize on the street, probably, and this biological brother she probably has no memory of. I mean, for Brittany, her world is this family, the Newhouses, that she’s lived with for the past year. And I suspect it won’t have been a year! I suspect it’s going to be closer to two years or more years. You know, you talk about being on a child’s clock. This child’s clock, you know, isn’t in the adult world, where it’s nice and reasonable and rational and Janice hasn’t done anything wrong and it all should be reunited. I mean, on Brittany’s clock, it may look very different than it does with adult eyes, is all I’m suggesting. RONALD RICHTER, Legal Aid Society of New York: It definitely does. But I don’t think that that means that on behalf of Brittany, we say that we are going to, as a system, based on what we have developed here as the facts, going to end the relationship that Brittany has with her family. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Well, after this long road that began with Cynthia’s phone call and Trevor’s original visit, we did get to a permanency hearing. And the decision was–and there was a lot of consensus–that reunification was the way to go with Janice. But in the time that this conversation has happened, more calls have come into the agency, more reports of neglect, more reports of potential abuse, more cases to be opened. In the short time that we have, what’s the solution here? Congressman, let’s begin with you. Rep. GEORGE MILLER: Time is money, and money is time. You got to give this system and the people in this system time to look at these families, to look at the alternatives, to knit together that plan. This isn’t something you can do on the run. You can’t take a child of 1 year and scribble out on the back of an envelope what you’re going to do with that child for the next year, what this placement’s going to be. But with the caseload that exists in most cities, in most states, it’s almost impossible because the fact of the matter is now, for 30 years this system has replicated itself in these massive defaults, where children end up by default in one place or another, at home or in long-term foster care, or they end up severely injured. And then, we see them again. We see them in special education. We see them in the justice system. We see them in the prison system. We see them as parents, where now we’re asking them about taking away their children. So at some point, this country has got to come to grips, where the rhetoric about our children and the resources to carry out that rhetoric have got to be matched. And there is not so far demonstrated in this country that the political will is there to do that. [applause] JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Dorothy, what needs to be done? DOROTHY ROBERTS: Well, I think the first thing we need to do is acknowledge that the only reason that Janice got involved, that her kids were taken away, is that she was poor. And we would never do this kind of interference in a family, based on disapproving of a boyfriend or based on a broken table, or based on a messy house, if she were a middle-class or a wealthy mother. The whole system is a way of dealing with poverty, especially with poor minority families. And maybe if we admit it, we would be more willing to take those billions and billions and billions of dollars spent on keeping children away from their families, on providing support for children and families to begin with, so that they wouldn’t have to end up in a system like this. JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Thank you very much. And to all of the panelists, thank you very much. This wasn’t about answers. It was certainly about questions, the ones you deal with every day and the ones we in our communities have to deal with every day. Thank you very much. » Part Two: Failure to Protect: The Caseworker Files WRITTEN BY
Barak Goodman PRODUCED BY
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of Child Protective Services: Bangor, ME office » Part Three: Failure to Protect: A National Dialogue CREATIVE CONSULTANT
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All Rights Reserved ANNOUNCER: This report continues on FRONTLINE’s Web site, where you’ll find more about the child protection cases featured in this film, the reactions of national child welfare experts to this program, plus video and a transcript of the national discussion you have just watched on the issues facing America’s child welfare system. And find out on the Web site if this program will be shown again on your PBS station. Then join the discussion at PBS on line, pbs.org, or write an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to this address [Dear FRONTLINE, 125 Western Ave., Boston, MA 02134]. Next time on FRONTLINE, a story of China rarely seen in the West, of a nation trying to redefine its economy, a story of unprecedented opportunity and utter despair, a story of ordinary people in exactly times. China in the Red. Watch FRONTLINE. Educators and organizations can purchase a tape of this program by calling PBS Video at 1-800-PLAY-PBS. [$59.95 plus s&h] Partial funding for “Failure to Protect” is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, making grants to improve the health and health care of all Americans. Additional funding for the seminar segment of this program is provided by the David & Lucille Packard Foundation. FRONTLINE is made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.