Immersion illuminates family services' challenges
|Children frequently become upset when they are first removed from a home by a DCFS case worker. But many youngsters calm down after they arrive at a foster home. Case workers often remain at the foster home until the youngsters feel comfortable with the unfamiliar surroundings.|
Few people can imagine having to be the individual who takes children away from parents.
Few people can imagine being the one who has to deal with the parents who have lost kids and lead the adults along a long path to get the children back.
Trying to imagine being the parents and children who must travel that trail can be even more difficult.
Last week, Castle Valley residents were given an opportunity to experience the situations during an immersion program presented by the Utah Division of Child and Family Services at the Carbon County Fairgrounds Community Center.
During the program, attendees listened to case workers and clients - parties who have been on the front lines of child removals from homes and the individuals who have been behind the lines.
"Look at the case workers and what they have to face when they go into a home," said Lisa-Michele Church, the state's executive director of human services who opened the seminar. "They get blamed for a lot of what is done and how it is done. But in actuality, the intake process is determined by the legislature, not by the case worker."
Complaints about how DCFS does its job and what case workers do often filter through the media from parents who have had children removed from homes.
Stories about the arbitrary actions of cold-hearted case workers and the agency circulate constantly. In the last few years, DCFS has been unable to answer the allegations leveled at the agency and case workers due to a number of restrictions enacted by the Utah Legislature.
Last week's seminar was a chance to address many questions in a general way without commenting on information about specific cases that are confidential.
"The fact is that no one is in a vacuum when it comes to the problems case workers in our department face," said Duane Betournay, the state's DCFS director. "I know it sounds trite, but it takes the entire community to raise kids."
Removal of children is the last thing case workers and the agency want to do, pointed out DCFS representatives at the conference. But when situations that could affect the well-being of children are reported to DCFS, the agency must investigate the matters.
Reports about suspected child abuse or neglect can come from many sources, including clergy, schools, law enforcement officers, relatives or neighbors
"I have to remind people that when they come to us, either in person or over the phone, we have to investigate," said Lisa Shook, who oversees the intake process at the DCFS office in Price. "The intake worker is the first person contacted and they have to look at cases of abuse, neglect and dependency for anyone under 18 years of age. All reports to the worker are kept confidential; no one outside the agency can know where the initial report came from."
Case workers indicated that people sometimes get cold feet after reporting what they thing could be a bad situation.
But after learning about possible problems, the case workers can't ignore the reports.
Intake workers set three priority levels for evaluating a child's status in a home.
A priority one case is when there is an imminent threat of abuse or injury. DCFS must take action within 30 minutes to protect the children.
In a priority two case, physical evidence may be at risk. Intake workers have one hour to get the case into the system and start the gears rolling to evaluate the matter.
In a priority three case, the risk is low to the child and the intake worker has 24 hours to get the ball rolling.
"Removal of a child is a last resort," said Michele Ardohain, a supervisor at DCFS. "It is only done when the safety of a child cannot be guaranteed."
Once children are removed they are sent to some kind of temporary care, often to foster homes.
Case workers try, but can't always keep siblings together.
The entire process can be traumatic for children.
"Foster care is different for every child," said Ben Moore, a case worker in Price. "Sometimes they blame themselves for what happens in foster care. They often feel the have no roots, and they sometimes can't remember much about the past, particularly since they have no one to talk to about it."
Moore was removed from his mother's care when he was fairly young and spent time in foster homes in Vermont, Georgia and Utah. He was kept with his sister, who longed to be adopted.
After ending up in Utah, the pair found a family who wanted to adopt them. The experience prompted Moore to become a case worker and help children in similar situations.
"Life in foster care can be very hard," said Moore.
In some instances, children get into what are called "custody and guardianship situations." The children have no case workers although the youth are not legally adopted.
After children have been removed from a home, the plan for the family moves beyond the intake case worker to providers of ongoing services. The positions require dealing with families in the long term.
During that time, family meetings take place. Often, all involved parties, including foster parents and children, attend the meetings to resolve problems so children can be returned to homes.
The direction of the meetings frequently depend on the problems found in the home. Since many removals are based on neglect or abuse due to drug use, the criminal justice system is involved. Drug families account for 72 percent of children removals in Utah.
"I hated you when it happened," indicated Iulinda Sanderson to the case workers during the workshop. "I thought you were the worst people in the world for doing that. But when I look back today, I realized you saved my kids and you saved my life."
Sanderson's children were taken away from her 10 years ago. Some of the children were not returned for years until she broke away from the drug culture. She said it was hard to have six kids in foster care, but she was finally able to get her children back, not only physically but mentally.
"My oldest son came back and he then knew he could trust me to make good decisions," she said.
According to local community services manager Bonnie Seals, the DCFS goal is to reunite children and parents when possible. Seals was Sanderson's case worker.
In Utah, DCFS served 52,831 people in 2006 and 30 percent of the child protective services cases were related to domestic violence. Neglect accounted for 33 percent of the children put into custody.
During the seminar, the case workers were asked to tell about their worst days and best days.
"The best days are the reason I keep showing up to work each day," said Candice Jensen, who has spent nine years with DCFS. "I once had to remove a newborn from a meth mother and it was hard. But when I held that new life that I probably saved in my hands, it was worth it."