The Elephant in Current Social Work

June 1, 2008

I have not written about this topic, yet, despite the fact that I have spoken about it with multiple people from various facets of my life. This would the child protection case that has been going on in Eldorado, Texas. 460 children were removed from a polygamist sect after concerns had been made regarding the safety of the children, specifically for sexual abuse. On Thursday, some parents won an appeal that said that the state did not have enough evidence and overstepped its bounds to remove all of the children.

So what the heck do I think? Many things, of course! Some of them:

  • There are many factors in play with this case, religion and culture being chief among them. Undeniably, this sect (does that word have political implications, too?) lives quite differently than mainstream America. They live in community, dress differently, and very little interaction with society at large. Oh, and they believe in polygamy. So I think there are some large philosophical questions regarding if, when, and how (in that order, by the way) authorities intervene with how this group is living their lives.
  • I am not a libertarian so I think there are definite times for authorities to intervene (if) and that concerns of sexual abuse (and general child maltreatment) are definite times for the authorities to step in (when). Of course, the big question is how. The interesting thing is that this latest court ruling did not dismiss the “if” or “when” questions – it was more the how question. Specifically, they were justified in being concerned and then removing some of the children, but not all of them. I don’t necessarily disagree with the court with this ruling (in hindsight), but my big question would then be, in the moment that all of this is going down, how do you make distinctions between which children are at-risk and those that are not. I suppose a quick answer would have been to remove all of the girls, but leave the boys, as the particular referral that led to the raid was girls being married at young ages. I just don’t know that if I was making that call if I would be able to sleep at night, knowing that child sexual abuse is by no means limited to female victims. I believe (and hope) that there was a conversation regarding these issues among the higher powers of the Texas Child Protection agency (and I would have loved to observed it!)
  • I don’t think that our society has a full understanding of sexual abuse. It is one of those things that we don’t do well talking about or even acknowledging. So I think that society has some misconceptions that I think many peoples’ outlook on this case. One is how much shame is involved in sexual abuse. The emotional toll on victims is tremendous and they learn very quickly to bury and hide all of the evidence, which is chiefly their emotions. The cycle begins as they hide their emotions, they feel more shame as most people don’t pick up anything is wrong, which leads to their hiding and feeling more shame. Another misconception is regarding perpetrators. I think that many people still think of perpetrators as the typical “dirty old man” characteriture, when in fact, they come in all shapes and sizes.
  • Then there are the mothers that went on various television programs, including Larry King. I think they are great example of blunted affect. Essentially, blunted affect is a restriction on one’s range of emotions. This is most often found in people with some forms of schizophrenia, but also those suffering from PTSD. I guess I would be very concerned about the trauma histories of each of those women (and think it helps make a case for a “culture of abuse” within the community. Of course, proving that is much more difficult).
  • Which I guess leads me to my final thought (of this posting), which is something I am becoming more aware of in my own work, which is that there is sometimes a disconnect between discovering maltreatment and being able to “prove” it in a courtroom. I understand the necessity of proving things in court (to protect the innocent), but with that standard also means that sometimes perpetrators don’t get prosecuted, which in this case, means that kids are still in harm’s way. Of course, I don’t know how to fix this (yet, perhaps?), but there is a gap.

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?

Day One

May 2, 2008

So I finished my first day. I arrived on time, despite leaving later than I wanted. When I arrived and asked for my supervisor from behind the glass, I was informed that she was not there. Uh oh. Not a good sign. Fortunately, a woman from my unit was there, Sarah, who was actually asked to show me around in the morning. Better. Sarah was very nice and showed me around the office and gave me lots (but not too much) insider information about the office and job. I then worked on some personnel paperwork and was welcomed by my supervisor who was off to meetings. She asked me to sit on one later in the day and to meet with the personnel lady later. Not too bad. And before I knew it, Sarah was back telling me she had been instructed to take me out to an early lunch, so she and Troy took me to a favorite joint.

We got back, after they gave me loads more insight, and I joined a CPT (Child Protection Team, I think) meeting. This is a meeting that the SW and supervisor have with representatives from the community to get recommendations on how to proceed with a case. I don’t think that Massachusetts did anything like this. Oregon had something similar, but that seemed to be the community keeping tabs on the Department as opposed to the Dept. asking the community for input. Anyways, I sat in on two of these meetings. The first had to do with a 7 month old with a mysterious spiral fracture. Experience tells me that this often indicates physical abuse, especially when the explanation from the parents changes and is unclear, as in this case. I was a little surprised, however, that the “guests” of the CPT were not so concerned about this. So much so that I thought about speaking up, but that really did not seem to be how the meeting functioned. I will have to figure that out as I go on.

I also think it is interesting how dv people (domestic violence) are so obvious about what their specialty is. Just as there are lesbians that are 100 footers, I think that many dv advocates are 10 worders – Within 10 words you know that they are dv advocates. Their focus is just so apparent. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing – although it makes me concerned that because they are so concentrated on domestic violence that they have blinders on to other issues.

The second case involved drugs, neglect, and the mom showed up. It reminded me how that really changes a case when you meet the family. It really humanizes it. There is also so much more data from a personal encounter, which I think is important. The other interesting thing I noticed from discussing family was how my mindset has changed as I have switched roles. Previously, I was a clinician and my main concern was the mental health of the client, meeting them where they were at, and really, just listening. Now, my role is more complex. There is an element of clinician that is still there, wanting to understand and hear the client. But there is also a bit of detective in there as well as analyst/evaluator. I need to hear what the client is saying, but I can’t stop there. I need to delve deeper and figure out what is really going on and analyze the rest of the data because I have to make really important decisions about the safety of the child. It was amazing for me to realize how this shift in my thinking had happened, in really just one day. I am now on the other side of the fence. And it is interesting.

The rest of the day was more orientation, personnel paperwork, and a little bit of reading case files. I have to learn a whole new set of terms and acronyms, which is always challenging. It is so close, but yet, different enough that if I mixed them up, it would take others some time to figure out what I was talking about. But, I do think that I am getting faster at it. Hopefully, it won’t take me too long.

So final verdict: a good day. I still think I would have preferred to have had the state-wide training, but there was still enough structure and support that it was helpful. I wasn’t put into a cubicle with a large, out-of-date binder of policies and told to read it all day (which happened at my last job). People were very eager to talk with me and have me shadow (also not the case last time). So I will be accompanying Sarah tomorrow to court, which should be fascinating…