FIJ Quarterly - Fall 2022 Edition

What the System Taught Me Cheri Williams

I stood at the door, trembling. I was 24 years old and working my first solo case as a child protective investigator. I nervously played multiple “what-if” scenarios through my mind each time before I knocked. What would happen when someone answered the door and learned I worked with the state? How would they react when I told them that someone had called with concerns about their children? Surprisingly to me, each door I knocked on was usually answered. With my warmest smile and kindest voice, I explained who I was, why I was there, and asked to come inside. Most people let me in, although they usually had terror in their eyes as I asked them about their kids, relationships, whether they had any mental health issues, substance abuse problems, or a history of violence. Although I had a degree in family and child sciences, I had no idea what it really meant to be a parent. I certainly had my fair share of criticisms for what my parents had or hadn’t done, but that was all the parenting life experience I had. My supervisor also wasn’t a parent. It’s critical to know how young and afraid I was as I share my personal truth and experiences of more than 24 years working in the child welfare space. Despite no real experience with parenting, I was the sole person investigating a family. Through a couple of conversations with my direct supervisor, I determined whether a parent was “appropriate” or not. If that sounds incredibly subjective to you, it was. After starting each investigation, I had a short phone call with my supervisor where I routinely got the same question : “Can you guarantee their safety, Cheri?” If I couldn’t answer with a confident yes,

the response was always, “Then you have to pull ‘em.” I would take the next step to call the police and wait for them to arrive at a neutral meeting spot. I’d brief the officers, whose primary duty at that point became guaranteeing my personal safety. I would then go back to the home and knock on the door again, but this time with reinforcements. As a representative of the state, I removed screaming children from their parent’s arms and loaded them into the backseat of my blue Chevy Malibu. It was the first car I had ever purchased for myself as an adult, and now the back seats were tear-stained from the dozens of children I personally removed. This happened again and again for 15 months until my mind, body, and spirit could no longer take it. We didn’t talk about trauma back then. We didn’t know much about it—at least in my child welfare circles. I was taught that my sole focus was to keep kids physically safe, no matter the cost. “Mental injury” was also a legal maltreatment, but we learned in training that it was difficult to prove, so physical safety became the battle cry I carried forward day after day. But the system taught me a whole lot more than that—primarily that the most important thing was to avoid being on tomorrow’s front page of the newspaper. It took me nearly 20 years in child welfare to learn how I had unknowingly reinforced harmful learning in my early career. This realization has now inspired me to dedicate every day in the second half of my career to prioritizing the well-being of families and empowering them to keep their children safe. It’s important to note that I’m not placing blame or shame on anyone who currently or has in the past worked in the child welfare system. I have met some of the most amazing people in

Cheri Williams

60 | FIJ Quarterly | Fall 2022

FIJ Quarterly | Fall 2022 | 61

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