From Selena Childs, project director for the N.C. Child Welfare Workforce Collaborative Project at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Social Work and former executive director of the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force:
When I hear about a child's death, my chest tightens and my stomach clenches. I hold my children close and give thanks for their safety. I tear up thinking about the fear and pain the child might have experienced and think about loved ones left behind, who are hurting beyond my comprehension. When I learn that the Department of Social Services was involved with the family, my compassion extends to the workers and agency leaders who I know are experiencing a heartfelt loss themselves.
As the public tries to make sense of an inconceivable loss, inevitably blame is sought. As a parent I understand that, because when I hear of a child death I am desperate to find a reason that helps me do away with the anxiety I experience as I hope nothing bad will ever happen to my children. And there is no better target for blame when a child dies than the social service agency charged with protecting children, or so the public seems to believe. I understand that reaction, and I might share it if I didn't know what Child Protective Services workers actually do. If I only knew the negative stereotypes of social workers from TV, I would be on the front lines of attack - "Where were you? Why didn't you do more to prevent this tragedy?"
But I know better. About 80 percent of the families that Child Protective Services/DSS workers serve are families who are unable to meet some of their kids' basic needs. In those cases CPS workers assess the family's needs and work with the family to connect them to resources. Most of those families are helped to help themselves and most importantly, helped to take care of their kids on their own. In the other 20 percent, the caretakers are unable to keep their children safe and may be the source of physical/sexual/emotional abuse. In those instances, CPS workers have the charge and the authority to remove children from those unsafe situations and place them in a safe home.
Most of the time the system works. Most of the time kids are protected. Most of the time the good work of CPS goes unnoticed, unheralded, un-reported in the news. But when a child is a victim of a violent crime and CPS has a history with the family, CPS is blamed, almost as if the workers and agency had committed the crime themselves.
On behalf of the families and children who have been well-served by DSS/CPS, I suggest that the public would benefit if the media and DSS partnered to paint a more complete picture. Reporters might attend a Child and Family Team meeting; shadow a DSS director through the day; and talk to the kids and parents who are better off as a result of the service they received.
I understand the temptation to blame DSS when a child dies - the alternative, that we as a society have failed, is almost too big to comprehend. If there's a worker or agency to blame, then you and I can worry less that it could be us who someday experiences such a devastating loss. But I know better. And you, the public, should have accurate information about the good work of our departments of social services so you know better, too.
For The Record offers commentaries from various sources. The views are the writer's, and not necessarily those of the Observer editorial board.