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Child welfare workers second-guess stressful jobs

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By COLLEEN LONG Associated Press

Posted: 04/03/2011 06:59:59 AM PDT

Updated: 04/03/2011 12:25:31 PM
PDT
Kelly Mares, a child
protective specialist, poses for a photograph… ((AP Photo/Tina
Fineberg))

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NEW YORK—When child welfare worker
Kelly Mares investigates an abuse case, she doesn’t know what’s going to greet
her on the other side of the door. A ferocious dog. Or a gun. Or a meth lab, or
angry parents who lash out violently.She takes those risks willingly, she says, because she believes in protecting
the city’s most vulnerable. But she’s not willing to risk going to jail. After
two of her co-workers were charged with criminally negligent homicide in the
death of a 4-year-old Brooklyn girl under their care, she’s rethinking her
career.

“I do not want to go to work every day afraid that I’m going to be arrested
for doing my job, and right now that’s how everybody feels and it’s really
scary,” she said, her voice cracking.

Workers at child welfare agencies around the country tell similar stories of
taxing, emotional and frustrating jobs that are low in pay and high in stress
because of hostile families, tight budgets and overburdened court systems.
Workers juggle several cases, make as little as $28,000 a year and usually burn
out after a couple of years.

In Brooklyn, an investigator and supervisor for the New York City
Administration for Children’s Services are arguing they were too busy to record
their work in the case of Marchella Pierce, who died after being beaten, drugged
and starved to 18 pounds, about half of what a child her age should weigh. If
and when they go to trial, a central issue will be whether city workers who fall

down on the job should be held criminally responsible—and the outcome
could set a precedent for how failures are handled in the future.

Critics liken the practice to arresting a police officer for not getting to
the scene of a crime fast enough.

“It’s impossible to see into the future about these cases,” child welfare
expert Andrew White said, referring to Marchella’s death.

“It’s a lot to take the responsibility for something you’re only seeing in
hindsight . when you’re talking about homicide charges,” said White of The New
School for Management and Urban Policy which publishes the journal Child Welfare
Watch.

Prosecutors insist, though, that child welfare workers who are dangerously
negligent in their jobs should be held criminally responsible.

Case workers in Philadelphia who skipped home visits to a 14-year-old
disabled girl and contractors who invented phony paperwork after she starved to
death in 2006 are serving long prison terms for defrauding the city; her mother
is serving 20 to 40 years for third-degree murder.

Florida’s system recently came under fire after a child protective
investigator failed to call law enforcement during a four-day search for
10-year-old fraternal twins allegedly locked in a bathroom for days. Instead,
officials say, she filled out a safety questionnaire indicating the children
were not in danger. The girl’s body was later found in her father’s pickup
truck.

In Brooklyn, Marchella Pierce’s mother, Carlotta Brett-Pierce, has been
charged with murder in her September death; her grandmother has been charged
with manslaughter. They have pleaded not guilty.

At the crux of the charges against investigator Damon Adams and his
supervisor, Chereece Bell, are whether visits were made to the troubled home.
Records and conversations between Bell and Adams were not entered into the
computer system until after she died, and prosecutors charge that they were
falsified.

The Administration for Children’s Services said in an internal report that it
appeared no one visited the home in the months before the girl died.

Bell and Adams say some visits took place but weren’t recorded because they
were so busy. They resigned in October.

“I was so conditioned. … Every day it was something else coming up that
prevented you from doing another. It was so regular to me that it was impossible
to get it all done,” Bell said.

She said she was undertrained and never got the staff she needed to manage a
Brooklyn-based unit that had a high rate of abuse and neglect cases. Adams’
attorney said he had dozens of court cases, in addition to open child welfare
investigations that took up hours of his day.

But White said that regardless of the hours, good workers get much of their
work done, and if they really made the visits, there should be some kind of
paperwork to back it up.

New York’s child welfare commissioner, John Mattingly, recently announced
system changes after Marchella’s death and said in a statement that the arrests
were troubling and could discourage excellent job applicants.

Child welfare experts say Mattingly’s fear is a real possibility, given how
difficult the jobs are.

“We’re asking people to go into very difficult neighborhoods, work with
families that may not have them there, and do it with poise and calm, in highly
charged environments in order to protect children,” said Mary McCarthy, a child
welfare expert at the State University of New York in Albany. “And then make
decisions about the future welfare of that child.”

In the past decade, the New York City agency’s budget has gone from about
$2.1 billion in fiscal year 2000 to about $2.7 billion now. Cases have steadily
increased since the death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown—who was bound to a chair,
starved, forced to use a litter box and then beaten to death—shook the city and
led to changes in the child welfare system.

The Child Welfare League of America recommends no more than 12 active
investigations per worker a month at one time, and no more than 14 combined
investigations and court cases at one time.

Child welfare workers in New York on average juggle nine investigations at
any given time, plus dozens of other open cases. In Illinois, it’s 12. In South
Florida, under scrutiny after the case involving the twins, it is nearly 18.

Workers make $28,000 and up. In New York, investigators are paid between
$42,000 and $72,000. In Miami, it’s $34,000.

Right now, Mares has 22 cases to monitor, including 10 open investigations.
She starts early, ends late. She spends as much as five hours at a home and
spends days in court on other cases. She needs to obtain medical and school
records; examine children physically; and interview parents, teachers, neighbors
and friends about potential abuse.

She has to prioritize, and that often means leaving paperwork until the end.

“Look, if this precedent is going to be set, then you might as well arrest me
right now, because my notes are late,” Mares said. “Does it mean I didn’t make
those visits? No. Does it mean I don’t take good, clear notes? No. Does it mean
I didn’t do those things I said I did? No.”

The stress causes most investigators to burn out quickly, child welfare
experts say. In Florida, state agency Secretary David Wilkins said, nearly 56
percent of investigators have been on the job less than two years.

“I have seen, in over eight years with the Department, several massive
exoduses of workers who feel they have come to the end of their line,” Florida
child welfare worker Leaford McCleary wrote in an internal email to other
workers obtained by The Associated Press.

“It is common knowledge that we often neglect our obligations to ourselves
and our families in order to meet the demands of this job,” she wrote. “And our
secret prayer at the end of each day is that nothing goes wrong with a child on
our caseload.”

The investigator who failed to call law enforcement during the search for the
twins is no longer with the agency. Another employee was fired and two others
were reprimanded. No criminal charges have been filed.

For New York’s Mares, who left a successful career in theater to do the job,
she’s not sure what her next move will be. She has been working two years—the
mile post for most to get out.

“I wanted to help children, and I wanted to make a difference and I like
getting to the heart of things; that’s why I chose this position,” she said. “I
didn’t sign up for the two-year turnaround. I signed up to make this my career,
and to be honest, all of this is in question now.”

———

Associated Press writer Kelli Kennedy in Miami contributed to this report.

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Written by dawneworswick

June 29, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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