Extraordinary Power of Division Caseworkers

A child welfare parent defense attorney colleague recently shared with us an article out of Seattle, Washington. The termination of a mother’s parental rights was reversed on appeal. One of many infirmities with the trial Court’s opinion was that the mother was less than pleasant to her agency caseworker. Specifically, the Appellate Court held:

“While [the mother] had a duty to comply with all ordered services, no statute or rule required her do so with a smile on her face.”

A copy of the article is available here: http://mobile.seattletimes.com/story/today/2022084530/track-ip_news_lite-1.2.2-./

What strikes me about this article is not the obviousness of the premise asserted, but the commonality with which parents face the irrevocable loss of their parental rights for such mystifying reasons. We know that the child welfare system is unfair; that all that is required to take a child from a parent is (for the most part) an accusation of “concern”; that parents are often held captive to unrealistic deadlines – they must remedy all that ails them in about 1 year, or else risk permanent loss of child; and that delays in Court availability is held against parents when they exercise the rights granted to them under the applicable statutes to not to engage in “services” until such time as the State proves a violation of such statute. We know these premises to be true and nearly universal.

But, one aspect of child welfare world that is often overlooked, if not undervalued, is the extent to which a 22 year old, new graduate, fresh out of college with a Social Work degree and little to no life experience, can precipitate a termination of parental rights by peppering her paperwork with castigations about the parent’s attitude. How unconscionable a result that a parent could face the ultimate death penalty of parenting because she had the audacity to dislike the often-arrogant, judgmental, degrading instruction provided to her by a childless stranger, half her age.

But even where caseworkers are professional and empathetic, assigned therapists who antagonize and judge the parent are vested with the extraordinary power of ridiculing the attitude of that parent, as a basis for taking their child away forever. Parents are often naïve. Even those who approach the child welfare system with a healthy cynicism and skepticism, never imagine that if they “cure” what ails them, that a bad attitude can be the death-knell of their parental relationship.

Many lawyers find themselves battling this bad-attitude-equals-termination-of-parental-rights mantra. However, it is usually less stark than is presented in this article. More often, caseworkers and service providers are masterful at infusing their otherwise legitimate critiques with attitude assessment. When that happens, the critique is as faulty as the pre-seventies “compliment” to working women: “You’re so smart … for a woman.” Sounds benign enough. Almost complimentary. You hear it enough times, you almost begin to think it a kind remark. But, at the end of the day, it is as much as insult as a parent whose abilities to parents are impugned because she had the nerve to dislike the people who took her child away and are keeping her child away on specious grounds.

Lesson to be learned: Play nicely with your workers. Suck it up. One day, our society will come to loathe this time in history where children could be taken because their parents dislike their captors. But, alas, we are not quite there yet.

Do Parents’ Opinions Matter?

When the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) removes a child from the custody of a parent, the agency is entrusted with locating an appropriate placement for the child. That placement can be with relatives or non-relative resource caregivers. When concerns of abuse or neglect occur in placement, the allegations are investigated by the Institutional Abuse Investigation Unit (IAIU). The Division also conducts an investigation to determine whether the child has been abused or neglected.

What role does the parent play in these investigations? Are the parents consulted? Pursuant to the administrative code, the parents must be contacted and advised of the investigation, even where the parent does not have custody. But, what happens when the parent is the one who makes the referral alleging abuse or neglect by the caregivers?

The Division and IAIU are required to investigate the referral. But when the agency has failed to choose an appropriate placement in the child in that being abused or neglected in the placement, the agency obviously does not want to highlight its failures to the parent. After all, it was the parents alleged malfeasance that led to the state taking action it deemed superior to that of the parent.

Unfortunately, when a parent is accused of abuse or neglect, his/her concerns for the child often fall on deaf ears. Anecdotal experience supports the notion that trial courts are more inclined to rely upon the division and especially the law guardian than upon the parents. How, then, can the parent convince the court to take their concerns for potential abuse or neglect of your child in foster care seriously?

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Document changes in the child’s physical appearance or emotional state at visitation. If the child comes to visitation with the parent with bruises or marks, that should be noted in writing to the agency and perhaps to the court.

2. Take pictures where appropriate to document injuries to the child.

3. If abuse is suspected, ask the child about suspicious injuries in the presence of a worker who would have a duty to document what the child has said.

4. Inconspicuously suggest to the law guardian that abuse may be at play. The law guardian has significantly more contact/access than the parents and can make surprise visits.

5. We’re serious concerns arise, insist upon a Child interview and pose questions about what is going on in foster care to the judge to be asked of the child.

Unfortunately, parents accused of abuse or neglect are often given short shrift when they raise concerns for the well-being of their child. That does not mean that the parents should give up hope and stop advocating for their child. But it does call into question our system when a parent accused of abusing a child, who may ultimately be exonerated, is ignored when real abuse takes place in foster care.