FIJ Quarterly - Fall 2022 Edition

examinations and forensic interviews of children and was there for nearly seven years, including five years as a supervisor. While the law has specific definitions of abuse, I saw thousands of child protection cases hinge on the legal interpretations of a very small team of people—a child protective investigator, their supervisor, and sometimes the findings of an expert medical doctor or attorney. I also saw many medical and legal professionals disagree over whether abuse had, indeed, occurred. What these years taught me is that local child welfare culture and subjective interpretation are much stronger forces than broad child protection laws. Remember how I struggled to understand “appropriate” parenting earlier? I can’t tell you the number of shelter petitions I wrote that described parental behavior as “inappropriate.” While I always went on to behaviorally define what I meant by that word, the fact remains that there is bias and interpretation from the start of every investigation. Implicit bias and confirmation bias can play a huge role. And I never learned about this until much later in my career. When parties to a child abuse case began legal arguments on the “best interest of the child” in court proceedings, I witnessed the courtroom quickly become a rodeo of subjective judgments and “better than’s.” “Foster care is better than…” “Ensuring this child is safe is better than…” The problem was anyone could stand in court and argue their “better than” philosophy. And since we didn’t yet know about the far-reaching effects of trauma, the central importance of family connection, and the emotional damage family separation causes, “better than” often looked like a child in a home with more resources, plenty of food, and brand-new school clothes rather than in a home with their family of origin. What I Know Now The lessons the system taught me were not obvious. I did not learn them overtly in

grew up initially in a trailer park and later in the suburbs, could guarantee the safety of children, despite never having parented. My 24-year-old brain couldn’t understand how I could ever guarantee anything. I was also commonly asked by my superiors whether I wanted my name on the front page of the newspaper the next day because a child on my caseload was murdered. These two questions repeated over time, made an “unspoken” rule loud and clear: Protect yourself and protect the state. It’s far better to err on the side of caution. And those were the exact words I heard my favorite judge utter over and over in my numerous judicial hearings, “I’m going to err on the side of caution and find probable cause for this removal.” Myth #2: Poor parents cannot be trusted to keep their kids safe. About 60 percent of child protection investigations are due to allegations of neglect. 3 In these cases, I was trained to assess a situation based almost solely on what food, shelter, clothing, and medical care kids were given. If I went to a home and parents had no way to keep their water running? “Pull ‘em.” If a mom kept missing doctor appointments for her medically fragile child because she had no reliable transportation? “Pull ‘em.” I was taught to approach each family as a stand-alone system, with the full responsibility of providing basic needs landing squarely on the shoulders of many parents who were living in generational poverty. We never talked about ______________ 1 'Baby steps' made to protect kids 20 years after Kayla McKean, 6, was murdered by father 2 vigilance | Definition of vigilance by Webster's Online Dictionary ( 3 Child abuse, neglect data released | The Administration for Children and Families (

my life through this field of work. My intent is to share how the system can dehumanize all who touch it. And that core values and beliefs are baked into the system that remains largely unconscious to us. As the late, great Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” This is me trying to do better. For all children and their families. Myths The System Taught Me Myth #1: “Protect yourself at all costs.” My state’s child welfare system was in crisis when I completed my 12-week classroom training in 1998. Everything I was taught in theory about the law and judicial proceedings was now confronted with real children, real families, and what we now know to be real trauma. Shortly after I started my career, a child named Kayla McKean 1 was murdered by her father. Past investigators had missed lots of signs that could have potentially saved her life, and the system was thrust into an extreme state of hypervigilance. Vig´i`lant: 2 Attentive to discover and avoid danger, or to provide for safety; circumspect; wary. In this vigilant atmosphere, investigators like myself had more than 30 new investigations each month. We worked 50-60+ hours each week, including many nights and weekends. My friends eventually stopped inviting me places since I usually cancelled due to a crisis case. I was taught to “discover and avoid danger…and provide for safety.” Essentially, I was taught to go into a home with the express purpose of finding everything the parents were doing wrong and determine whether those parents were “appropriate.” What I wasn’t taught in formal training, but I now realize, is that early in my career I was consistently taught to prioritize my own safety, comfort, and well-being above the needs of children and families. Again, I was asked after commencing each investigation whether I, a 24-year-old young woman who

root causes of why some families simply didn’t have access to resources or supports. I don’t remember having a single conversation about the systemic effects of poverty over time. Pair that with the fact that my education, and the education of most of my peers, was not in social work, and I was the perfect specimen to “succeed” in this field. Risk averse: 4 Anxiously wired: 4 Young enough to: 4 Think I knew what an “appropriate parent” was, despite never having been one 4 Go along with what The System taught me 4 Likely not have a fully formed pre-frontal lobe in my brain 4 Be motivated by fear Myth #3: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I heard this statement repeatedly when looking for relatives to care for children. The underlying belief was that relatives were just as “bad” as the parents who had children removed and that “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” Throughout my career, I’ve watched as hundreds of children have been removed and placed with licensed foster parents, many of whom are amazing people, yet the fact remains these foster parents are strangers to these children. I also now realize how much “easier” it was on me as a worker to place a child in a foster home fully intent on vetting available relatives, yet the new cases always kept coming. And once I knew kids were safe, my priority remained trying to “guarantee” the safety of others. In all honesty, following up on potential relatives after the initial removal and placement were rare. Myth #4: Local child welfare culture and subjective interpretation always trumps the law In 2000, after being a child protective investigator for only 15 months, I went to work for an organization that conducted medical

62 | FIJ Quarterly | Fall 2022

FIJ Quarterly | Fall 2022 | 63

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