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Monday, April 4, 2011

Criminal Charges against child protection workers in New York

In what may turn out to be a precedent setting case, 2 child protection workers have been charged with failing to protect a child and being somehow complicit in the death of Marchella Pierce. There is a claim, as yet unproven in a court, that the two workers created fraudulent records of visits. They say that the caseloads were too high to keep up with the record keeping. The records were written after the death of the child.

What this case represents is a liability chill that will fundamentally alter child protection if the case succeeds. Imagine, if you will, that a worker does the job, can't keep up with the records and then worries that they will be held criminally responsible if a child dies. And then do this for relatively little money. Why do it indeed. The case suggests that keeping up with the records is more important than keeping up with the cases.

If case loads were kept reasonable, then keeping up with paper would make sense as a daily priority. When case loads exceed what can be reasonably handled, record keeping will suffer. This is a point that politicians should remember each time they cut budgets and staff. A child will die when caseloads are high; budgets are too tight and turnover high because of the stress of the job - which will lead to high numbers of inexperienced workers doing front line work. The outcome of this recipe is inevitable - children will suffer; families will not get better; help will not be delivered in a way that makes a difference and, yes, children will die.

The issue is not therefore about the ineptitude of a particular worker but about the priority that society is willing to place on protection of children. Compare this to policing or other emergency services. If you put fewer police officers on the road, then high risk environments will be less protected and crime will go up. Who is to blame? The police officer or the society that does not wish to pay for services? Society gets the protection it is willing to pay for whether this be with policing, paramedics, fire or child protection.

Critics of child protection, and there are many, have legitimate points to raise but often fail to look at the role society plays in funding the work. Child protection is a balance between the needs of the child to be safe and the rights of families to be together. Examining a case to understand where that balance exists in a case takes time. The critics appear to have rarely spent time at the front line having to make those decisions. Workers having to do so on an urgent basis often have limited data to work with. Families may typically be reluctant information givers wanting child protection workers to disappear.

The critics take a distant view when much more data is known somehow anticipating that the front line worker should have been able to figure it out at the front door of the family home. We ask a lot of CPS workers. As a society, we should be willing to give them the tools to do the job.

This case may also lead to something that has been seen in England - managerialism and proceduralism. This is when protecting the system is more important than protecting the child.

If these workers did indeed fail to visit the family and created false records, then that may be a unique matter but let it be focused on that. Let not this case be about retrospectively holding workers accountable because a child died and they couldn't predict that.

Risk assessment is an inexact science. Workers take known factors of risk and compare them with the case in front of them. The closer a family fits in comparison to the risk factors, the greater the worry. However, it is also vital to understand that there are many who fit the risk profile who will not harm a child and many who do not fit the profile who will. There are times when risk assessment tools are no more effective than chance. What then is the worker to do but try and make the best decision possible with whatever information can tell them along with their own experience. This too will be inexact in the same way that a police officer must judge whether the person with the gun is going to shoot or not.

This trial will be well worth monitoring because of the major implications.

Related to this is a new publication from the National Association of Social Workers in the United States. Called Supervision: The Safety Net for front line Child Protection Practice, it highlights several facets needed for effective service delivery. These are timely given this New York case:

Training and Knowledge Development
• Lack of adequate training related to the roles, tasks and competencies for being a supervisor.
• Inadequate knowledge of the changing populations and communities being served.
• Over-focus on performance of administrative functions (managing staff and workloads) of the supervisor.
• Insufficient research-tested models of supervision (e.g., team models; identification of necessary education and training requirements and competencies; supervisor to supervisee ratios) and how these impact outcomes for children and families.
• Inadequate time to attend training programs or to remain current with the literature and research related to child welfare and supervisory practices.
• Absence of adequate dissemination tools and efforts to provide evidence-based information to supervisors and their staff.
• Insufficient timely use of data to inform and improve practice. Organizational Issues and Implementation of Child Welfare Practices
• Experiences of trauma, lack of safety and vulnerability, both within the agency and in some communities.
• Dealing with frequent turnover of high-ranking leaders and administrators.
• Difficulty in retaining competent front-line workers.
• Potential ethical conflicts in how services are provided to families, how families’ needs are assessed or regarding acceptable case plans.
• Addressing service and resource gaps. • Potential conflicts between the need to be transparent in terms of services provided and
confidentiality policies.
• Concerns about inadequacies in the built environment including lack of privacy for meetings, supervisory sessions and client interviews.
• Numerous oversight bodies that review practices and question how services are provided. • Absence of available and adequate supervision, peer consultation and support for the
• Problems in the organization’s culture and climate that heighten potential for burnout and turnover and add to the difficulty of providing supervision.
• Over-emphasis on administrative functions in supervision that take away from educational and clinical aspects of supervision to improve practice and outcomes. (pp. iii-iv)


  1. Excellent. Very accurate. As a Licensed Social Worker and a career with Child Welfare, I understand the difficulty in working in the system. My positions have included investigator, foster care coordinator, supervisor, family group conference facilitator---I absolutely did all possible to keep children safe as well as keeping families intact when at all possible. Yet---I have gone to bed most nights wondering if enough was enough. Yes, caseloads high and more emphasis at times on is truly a problem. We have such good workers on the front lines who are doing more than thought possible to them........for very little pay and long hours. I commend them. Thank you for the article.

  2. Does the lack of funding make these practioners of protection purposely sneeze into the face of an 8 month old baby girl, who by all appearances is clean and attached to the parents. Does lack of funding, make a case worker call the police and lie about an assault that never occured to procure protection for a child. Does said case worker lie under oath and embelish said assault even though never showed u for court, after reschedualing twice? Really I think your not in our shoes. Aparent