Ever since I heard about the tragic case of Leiliana Wright, I’ve been struggling to write this. Leiliana was four years old when she was beaten to death by her mother and step father. Worse, the abuse had been reported to CPS and they had failed to intervene. A lot of people reacted to the story with shock and outrage. But as someone who spent the last four years working closely with CPS in a neighboring county to which this tragedy occurred, I was not shocked. I was expecting a tragedy like this to occur.
I was working at an organization that provided counseling for people with substance use problems. Most of our clients were referrals from CPS who had had their children removed from their care due to abuse or neglect. Child abuse is an issue I am very passionate about. There are several people in my family who were abused as children and worked hard to break the cycle of abuse as adults for one thing. I also watched my mom give parenting classes to teenagers growing up, also hoping to end the cycle of abuse before it started. I did my practicum at a children’s mental hospital where I did counseling with children who had been horrifically abused. This was bleak and gut wrenching work, and I felt that I was trying to put a bandage over a problem that never should have happened. No child deserves to go through what the children I have worked with have.
So when I started working with substance use, I was interested in working with parents, because I figured that if I could teach people how to be good parents, then there wouldn’t be any wounds in the first place.
Of course, things are not so simple. Often these parents were abused as children and still have their own wounds that need tending for a start. The other problem was the overwhelming poverty these families were in. When you can’t make ends meet, worrying about meeting your children’s emotional needs falls by the wayside. But the other problem was child protective services itself was underfunded, understaffed, and ill equipped to meet the needs of the children who were relying on them to protect them.
The problems with high turnover, low pay, and high caseloads have been well documented, and nothing has been done about it. When the Sunset report came out, my friend and co-worker noted how every critique of the agency was spot on, but nothing was being done to address the problems. In December 2015 Judge Janis Graham Jack issued a damning ruling against CPS, finding they had violated the US constitution and put children at risk. Once again, the problem of too few caseworkers come up.
And NOTHING has been done to increase the pay of caseworkers, or increase the number of caseworkers, or decrease the turnover.
To put things in perspective, the caseworker assigned to Leiliana had a reported caseload of 70. It is not possible for one person to manage a caseload so high! A recommended caseload is 12, no more than 17.
CPS Investigators investigate claims of abuse. They go into homes where abuse is reported. This is often hazardous. They go into homes where people are using drugs or have even cooking drugs. They go into homes where there is hoarding and other unsanitary conditions. They also work with people who are threatening. I know one woman who quit working at CPS after a parent attempted to run her over with his car when she informed him that she was going to have to remove his children from his custody.
They have college degrees and do the work of a detective. Yet in the rural area where I lived, they made about 34,000/year. In cities where the cost of living is higher they could make around 40,000. In 2014 the average pay for a detective was 58,630 per year.
Obviously, the turnover rate is high. Investigators and caseworkers get burnt out easily and leave. Because of this, it is hard to retain trained workers and cases get shuffled around often. I have had clients have three different caseworkers in three months.
Here is the situation my clients would often find themselves in. They had their children removed. Often people assume that children are happy to be away from their abusive parents, but children tend to find it traumatic to be removed even if, best case scenario, they are going to a better home. Their stability has been disrupted. Also, contrary to belief, parents who have their children removed tend to love their kids even if they don’t know how best to care for them. Having their children removed is devastating for parents. They feel guilt and shame for losing their kids and are desperate to get them back. They start doing the services CPS asks of them.
But then their case gets moved to a different caseworker who doesn’t know the details of their case. This caseworker may tell them they need to do a different set of things than the first caseworker. Or the parent may be concerned because the new caseworker does not appear to know anything about their case. They finally get on the same page with the new caseworker, and then that caseworker leaves, and they have to start the process over again with yet another caseworker.
This is incredibly maddening and frustrating for the parents. They get confused messages and the impression that the caseworker does not care about their children. It is really hard for these parents to understand that the caseworker has about 30 cases they are trying to manage. They are also often frustrated because their phone calls and text messages to the caseworker are ignored. In that parents’ mind, their children are gone, and the only thing that matters is getting their children back and they don’t want to hear excuses about overburdened caseworkers.
And while these parents often made poor choices, they and their children are now stuck in a system that is dysfunctional. It is agonizing for them.
It is also harmful for their children, who the system is supposed to help. They have a different caseworker each month and can’t rely on the same person being there to help them through the process. They may have to tell the same traumatic story multiple times to multiple people. Caseworkers easily lose track of them. And far too often children are harmed in the household they were placed in. About every few months I would have a parent come in distraught because their child was raped in foster care, found to have suspicious bruises while staying with a relative, or neglected after being placed in a home with too many children and too few caretakers.
Yes, the children may have been abused or neglected with their parent. However, the reason CPS got involved was to protect the child, and now the child was further harmed by being placed in a harmful environment.
And in the last few months I was there, the problems with employee retention and high caseloads at CPS seemed to be getting worse. Caseworkers were often pulled from our county to Dallas county, where Leiliana resided, because it was known the situation in Dallas county was so bad. However, that did nothing to help the fact that the county they already were in was understaffed. I saw children returned to homes that were not safe because of lack of staff and a lack of safe places to put the children.
If we want to get serious about combating child abuse, the first and least thing that we can do is ensure that caseworkers who investigate abuse have a manageable caseload and a decent salary. No, this is not going to solve the problem by a long shot, it is just a start. However, there still appears to be no momentum on addressing these issues. Once again, we’re going for surface fixes, replacing a few key people and patting ourselves on the back and moving on. But until we start and push for more substantive change, then we’re going to have more Leiliana’s.