Child Protection: An Insider's View

Not long ago, Child Welfare Watch interviewed frontline child protection workers about their job. We were considering writing an article about the stress they experienced, and what might be done to reduce it. One major source of stress for many, though, has no easy solution: the constant worry that they might miss something that will haunt them. Below are excerpts from one of those interviews as told to reporter Kendra Hurley. We've granted this investigator anonymity, although she didn't ask for it at the time. That was before two former ACS frontline workers were charged this week by the Brooklyn District Attorney with criminally negligent homicide for mishandling the case of 4-year-old Marchella Pierce, who died last fall.

The comments below are just one person's view, but some of her experiences are widely shared. She intended none of this to be interpreted as excusing any investigator's failure to do their job. 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."

You can do a hell of a job and no one knows. But let something go wrong, you will get fired. You put so much into this job, and who's taking care of us? Now I see how workers can kind of say, "You know what? Forget it! Forget this!" That's not the way it's supposed to go. And that's how kids die.