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.