Choosing a Forever Home

March 4, 2009

A big part of our job is to achieve permanency for our kids – which is especially important as I am in a “little kids” unit.  In recent years, there have been laws passed which has mandated that kids have a permanent plan in place within a certain time frame.  So this means that there is a big clock that starts ticking with parents and they need to get there stuff together before the time is up or I have petition for the parents’ rights to be terminated.

I have an 18 month year old whose mom has not been getting her stuff together and while he has been in a very good foster home, they are not willing or able to care for him for the next 16.5 years of his life.  So because I am going to have to have a petition filed to terminate the mom’s rights, I need to get this little guy into a home that can be permanent for him.

About 2 weeks ago, I contacted the placement desk asking for foster-to-adopt homes interested in an 18 month year old boy that may be a good fit.  I was flooded with home studies of lots of great families that are looking for and wanting to have a kid just like him join their family.  So somehow, I read all of the home studies and narrowed it down to my top choices that I thought would be a good fit for him.  I spoke to their social workers and gave them more information (including some scaring off by the amount of legal risk involved with this case).  This, and other reasons, narrowed down the choices to three.  My supervisor and I met with all three of the families so that we got a better sense of them and they got a better sense of this kid.

And now we have to choose a family.  This is ridiculously hard.  All three of the families are fantastic.  They are loving, stable, understand the risks and challenges ahead, and would be wonderful for this child.  And all really would love to have him.  And somehow, I am have to pick one.  There are differences between the families – kids vs no kids, etc – which I think makes them different not better or worse.  I can easily make the argument for why this child would be better off as the only child in the home (at least for awhile) vs. it would be great for him to have a sibling in the home.  Yet, a choice has to be made and I am wanting to make it sooner or later.  I know wherever he goes, he will do great, but that, unfortunately, is not making this process any easier for me.

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Returning Kids

October 1, 2008

I returned my first kid to his mom recently.  He came into care because mom was using drugs pretty heavily and not properly taking care of him.  Kid was removed and mom got into an inpatient treatment program.  I really think that having him taken away was very painful for mom and it really motivated her to get committed to getting clean.  And she has been doing great in treatment.

Fortunately for me, returning a kid to a parent is not just me deciding at some point that I want to do it.  When that is something we are recommending, we present the case to a team of community members – professionals in the child and family mental health/welfare field, but not employees of the Dept. – and they make recommendations that we follow 99.99% of the time.  So I brought this case to them and they agreed with my recommendation to start a transition home that would occur over a month.  And so we transitioned him home, gradually increasing the time to allow both the kid and Mom to adjust to each other.  And there are no issues.

So the kid is now full-time with mom, which is mostly great.  I just still have that little bit of worry – that little place in the back of my mind that wonders, “what if?”  Some of those ‘what ifs’ include: what if I have been played by mom?  What if mom really isn’t able to care for him full-time?  What if mom relapses?  What if mom takes off from treatment and take the kid with her?  What if my judgment was off?

Intellectually, fundamentally, I do think I have been right.  I do think this mom is on the right path, is committed to treatment, and will not do anything to jeopardize the placement of her son.  And, at the moment, I have to trust myself.  I guess I just also have to feel comfortable with that self-doubt.  I suppose that it is healthy.  But it is just another reminder of the dangers of this job.


Big Decisions

August 21, 2008

Fortunately for me, it is now policy that big decisions (like returning a kid home) are the shared responsibility of many different people.  One person is not supposed to shoulder the burden.  I have been facing a big decision this week.  One of my kids, who is just over a year old, has a court hearing tomorrow morning.  His mother, who is currently in inpatient substance abuse treatment for an addiction to heroin, has been looking to agree to dependency and hoping that she can go to Family Treatment Court, which is a special program exclusively for parents for whom substance abuse is the primary concern where the the atmosphere is more intimate, but there there is more accountability.  It is a great program.  The father, who apparently does not have a substance abuse problem, is not wanting to agree to dependency.  So we had to decide if we wanted to fight for dependency and take it to a trial.

So I did what all good (and new) social workers do – I staffed it with my supervisor.  My supervisor was concerned (as was I) that dad was unaware that his girlfriend had relapsed and was actively using heroin.  She was also concerned about criminal activity that he had been linked to (although not charged).  So we are going forward.  Today, I spent trying to get my attorney all the evidence and information he needed in order to get a strong case built to hopefully show dad’s attorney that we have a decent case and will agree to settling.

Tomorrow, I have been warned, the defense attorneys may try to trick me and get me to say something that they can use against me.  I am not thrilled about this prospect.  Plus, this feels like a very strange way for me to be working as a social worker.  I want to be helpful and work with my clients, yet today I had to spend lots of time attempting to build a case against them.  And I know that my primary client is the kid, but I do feel like the parents are too.  But I do think that there is still risk with this dad in regards to this kid’s safety.  He appears to minimize problems quite a bit and I am concerned that he had no idea that his girlfriend was actively using heroin.

And it was interesting gathering the information.  I learned today that we have U.S. Postal Inspectors that investigate mail fraud, postal burglaries, identity theft, and related things.  I had no idea.  The inspector was very nice and helpful and so interesting to get a totally different perspective on clients.  I do think that I want to do some investigative CPS work in the future.

So I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.  A colleague suggested to do very little talking, let the lawyers hash it all out, and try to just listen to people.  We’ll see how that goes.  I just hope that I can keep my composure and not screw things up.


Badgered by Lawyers

August 2, 2008

Yesterday I was at court all morning where it was very busy.  I personally had three hearings for my cases.  They were more “check-in” hearings where nothing big happened, we just touched base with all of the players.

A coworker also had to go in for an emergency hearing after she had to pull kids from their mother’s home after she was being pretty neglectful.  So they had to have a hearing to get permission to place the kids somewhere.  On Thursday night, they had a 3 hour meeting about it (which I sat in) and then they were at court until mid-afternoon.  So it was stressful and contentious and not very fun for anyone.  Well, the end result was the judge gave the social worker the authority to place the kids in foster care, with suitable adults (family friends), and to return home to the mother when it is appropriate.  After the hearing, apparently the mother’s attorney accosted the social worker saying that she should just return the kids to the mom and not go through trying to figure out another place for the kids to go.  Apparently they were pretty aggressive and the social worker got a bit overwhelmed and began crying.

So I was thinking to myself, how would I react and what would I say.  This is hard.  I am not someone who is very good or experienced with confrontation.  Especially when compared to lawyers who are trained and seem to thrive on it.  While supervising these kids in the office until 8 pm on Friday I was thinking about this and finally came to an answer as I was driving home late for the second night in a row, exhausted.

The reason that my colleague wouldn’t do it and why I wouldn’t is because is it my ass on the line.  If something happens, the blame sits on the social worker’s shoulders.  The attorney doesn’t bare responsibility – and would probably shirk it as soon as possible.  We have to make harsh decisions sometimes and trust our guts because it is our responsibility to make those determinations.  Is this safe or not for kids?  Unfortunately, this puts us in situations where we are bullied, disliked, and even threatened.

So I need to embrace and cement this mentality more and more.  Which is tough.  I feel like in social work school we are taught to trust clients and take their word as true.  And while there is an element of that in child welfare, we are also analyzing situations.  And this pisses people off.  I am just not looking forward to the time where a lawyer attempts to bully me.


11 Volumes

May 27, 2008

One of my tasks today was going through a case file – 11 volumes in all (each volume is a large 3-ring binder) and searching for information so I can synthesize it into a report for adoptive parents to have. Not something that I want to do daily, but a good way for me to learn more about how a case is filed, what different documents look like, and a basic sense of how a case went.

Of course, while going through this file, I have lots of thoughts about it. And the big question that I came away from this case was, when does a child’s right to have a stable, permanent home trump a parent’s right to parent their own children? Or simply, how many chances do parents get?

In this case, mother had a long, intense substance abuse history. This lead to chronic neglect of the kids, whether it was putting them in precarious situations (around dealers or locked in a car in a parking lot) or not meeting their basic needs of hygiene and food (never mind, emotional and intellectual stimulation). There were numerous filings made on this mom, leading to her having the kids removed from her care. But some how, she would get it back together enough to convince the court that she was ready to parent again. And it appeared that she did often, but only for a limited time, and then she would relapse and the kids would be taken back into care.

So studies say that kids do better with their biological families, except in extreme situations. But where do you draw the line? I don’t think many would argue that parents should have their parental rights terminated after having one bout of substance abuse and not having a chance of cleaning themselves up. But do they also get 2 chances? 5? 10? 25? 100? This case certainly did not have 100 filings on it, it did not get to that point, but again, where do you draw that line?

I don’t know the answer, but I do think that this is going to be an issue that I will be revisiting often. I can see myself getting very upset when I think that we are on one side of the line and someone with more power than me (supervisors or the court) disagrees with me and wins the argument. I can see myself feeling frustrated that I will not be able to stop or prevent an injustice from occurring. But maybe it is better that I realize this now, so I expect the frustration. Maybe it will lessen the blow, but I doubt it.

But again, the job is trying to figure out what will be best for kids in the long term. And unlike the “hard sciences” there is no sure way of knowing, making this “soft science” much more difficult.


Emotional neglect

May 14, 2008

Today I was supervising a visit between a mother, her 1 year old son and her 6 year old daughter at her drug treatment facility. I first pick up the daughter from school who is quiet as we walk to the car, then is a chatterbox for 20 minutes, before falling asleep to pick up her (half) brother at his foster home. And it is so clear that this foster mother just adores this little boy and is sad that he goes on these visits (because she would love Mom to be out of the picture so that she can adopt him).

Anyway, Mom is happy and prepared for the visit, greeting us at the front desk and bringing toys and a diaper bag. We go and sit in a room, which yes, is awkward, because I am just there watching, what should be (and probably is) a very intimate experience for this family. But, I am needed (as evident later in the visit when Mom was not paying attention to the baby and he attempted to eat rocks, prompting me to intervene). For the most part, Mom is very appropriate in many ways. She sits on the floor, she has appropriate toys, she is attentive to his dirty diapers. My problem is I believe she is emotionally neglectful (and therefore, maybe abusive?) to her daughter. Repeatedly, the daughter attempts to engage Mom. (Today it was asking Mom twice to help her build a sand castle – first time she was ignored, second time Mom pointed out an unrelated item). Yet, Mom is solely focused on her son. And yes, a 1 year old needs more attention than a 6 year old, but she is so different at the visits. She hardly speaks at all, save attempts at engaging her mother by asking questions or making comments about the brother. Then when we get back into the car to go back home, she is a chatterbox again, making comments about everything and asking numerous questions.

I wonder what the long-term effects of this will be. I can imagine that there is a large amount of resentment building within her. It makes sense that she is never excited when we pick him up from his foster home. But it also makes me wonder what is going to happen when Mom has her next baby (she is 7 months pregnant). Will both children be neglected in favor of the baby. Out with the old, in with the new?

And what does this all mean from a child protection point of view? While this is obviously harmful to the children, should it prevent Mom from parenting them? Where is the line? And who decides? Of course, this case is not limited to just Mom emotionally neglecting her daughter – her long-term substance abuse is of prime concern. But where does this emotional neglect fall? And how can it be addressed, if at all?


Power

May 7, 2008

This is something that I am going to have to grapple with constantly with this job, yet it was part of the reason I took it. Power. The lack of it really bothered me in my last job. I felt that I was in a very good position to make decisions, but the most that I could do was make recommendations. And those, well, were mostly ignored. But in this job, I am smack dab in the middle of the decision-making and power.

Example: Today a baby came into our CPS (child protection services) unit*** after the mother abandoned it at the hospital through the Safe Haven law. Many states have a similar law – in essence, a parent can leave a baby at a designated location (hospital, police station) which is meant to prevent a baby from being left in a dumpster. The caveat in Washington is that the law only protects the parent from prosecution, so we will be interviewing the mother tomorrow to gather more information (and check on the welfare of her other child). So we need to place this child and we have the opportunity to look at families that are possible pre-adoptive homes. Therefore, a group of 5 of us looked at 5 adoption/foster family home studies and picked a first choice and a second choice homes for this baby. And just so we are clear, the 5 of us in a room, potentially decided who this baby’s lifelong family will be and which of these families that have been waiting a long time for a child, will finally get one (and a healthy newborn at that!) Fortunately, I feel like I am up to the responsibility of this kind of power.

I also experienced a little bit of the downside of having said power – not everyone is thrilled at those that have it. In the afternoon, I supervised a visit with a mother who has a extensive drug addiction problem with her two children, aged 5 and 14 months. Understandably, the mother was not thrilled at having me hang around for 2 hours and it was interesting to sit with that animosity.

Again, I am sure I get to deal with all of this much more in the future!

*** We have different kinds of units. CPS (child protective services) do the short-term, investigative work. CWS (Child welfare services), which I am a part of, does more of the ongoing work with children who are taken into state custody. Voluntary services work with parents on a voluntary basis, as the name implies. And there are other, more specialized units that I will learn more about later….