February 1, 2017
‘These Are People’s Lives and It Scares Me Every Day’
A Child Protective Caseworker Talks about Her Work
Recent deaths of children in families investigated by New York City child welfare services have put frontline child protective workers under intense scrutiny; last week, the City’s Department of Investigation released a report calling for improved protective services training and staffing at ACS.
Six years ago, Kendra Hurley, who heads up the children and families project at the Center for New York City Affairs, talked with one child protective worker about the momentous responsibility of determining whether a child is safe in her own home.
Little about that work has changed in the intervening years. The timeline for investigating families remains the same and caseloads have actually increased.
This child protective worker intended none of this to excuse failure to do the job well; far from it. In her words:
I always wanted to work here and now that I'm here I'm like, ‘You've gotta be kidding.’ When the school year picks up, we just get case after case, and once a case is generated the clock is ticking. It's like a ticking time bomb. It's a juggling act. It's like that guy in the circus spinning those plates, and that's how I feel, I'm spinning those plates, and I can't drop one because that means a kid could be dead or a kid could be hurt.
So many responsibilities fall on my shoulder that I'm not really sure I can do this. I'm responsible not only for assessing the child's safety at that moment, I'm responsible for risk, which is the future. I'm responsible for looking into the future.
You could leave a house where you have a case and something bad happens there the next day and they could say, ‘Miss P, you needed to be able to see into the future.’ These are people's lives and it scares me every day I turn on my TV and see the news. I see a story where something went wrong with a child known to ACS and I'm thinking, ‘Is it my house? Is that my kid?’
I've been here almost a year now. I still get a rush when I get a case. I get excited. I want to go see what's going on. If I can't get in a home, I want to find a way. I'm one of those workers who's not afraid. I walk into any housing development where it's obvious there's drug trafficking, people hanging out, you know, and when I'm knocking at the door there's nothing in me that's saying, ‘Are you sure?’
It makes me feel good to know that I am trying to save a kid's life. I love the fact that my families look at me and say, ‘I need your help.’ They depend on me and I follow through. I get a sense of fulfillment. Sometimes you are a wakeup call for families. I've had my clients say ‘thank you.’
I learned a lot from the academy where caseworkers get trained, but it's not the same as when you're in the field. I'm not used to getting these cases this fast and these cases just keep coming in. Even if it's a bogus case, even if it's a girlfriend calling a case on her ex-boyfriend who she's mad at, I still have to treat that case as if it's real. I still have to follow through with the investigation.
In the training unit, you get a page-long of directives on how to ascertain the relationship of a great -great grandma who lives in Georgia, who has nothing to do with the case. But in the field I don't have enough time to dig into great-granny's life. I don't have enough time to sit and figure out if there is domestic violence and dissect that.
In past jobs I've worked with different populations from youth to residential treatment facilities. I have a strong skill set. I have qualities I know I'm good at. But it's not helping me here. Here, I'm up against the clock. I'm not sitting down and servicing families the way I think they should be serviced.
The safety assessment has to be done in 24 to 48 hours. That's OK. But what if you can't find the children? You make biweekly visits for cases that are active and open. On day 45 or 50 you have to get ready to make a determination of what you think. Day 45 sneaks up so fast, and before that, services have to be in place.
Emotionally I've never been at a job where I'm just trying to get to the weekend. I'm just cranking it out Monday through Friday, and the goal is Friday. I just kind of stuff the stress someplace. I don't have time to process it or think about it. There are mental health services, but who has time for that?
My behaviors outside of my job have started to change. I spend money that I don't have. I talk myself into, ‘You deserve to spend that, you worked hard. Go ahead. Go out to dinner and buy those shoes.’
I started noticing my alcohol intake was starting to increase. Whenever I'm at home and the problems from work are spilling over and my behavior is starting to change, I'm calling my mom saying, ‘What do I do about my job?’
I come from a family with a strong work ethic, so she's telling me to keep going. ‘You can do it,’ because that's what she's supposed to say. But after I hang up the phone I think, ‘I don't know if I can do this.’
This year the Center's Child Welfare Watch projects mark its 20th anniversary. During 2017, the Center will republish still-relevant reporting from its files, while also reflect on the new directions its work will likely take forward.
Photo by Caleb Ferguson