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South Carolina DSS suffering the Hawaii DHS Koller virus

By now everyone’s heard about the remarkable story of the Santa Clara, CA teen who stowed away on a flight to Maui in a Hawaiian Airlines’ jet wheel well last weekend. Miraculously unharmed, Hawaii News Now concluded their Monday morning report by informing us of the next chapter in the teen’s odyssey

The FBI says Child Protective Services took custody of the boy…

Uh oh – now the consequences for his actions really begin! He might have escaped from his trans-Pacific flight unscathed but he’s involved with CPS now – good luck there buddy…

Why such a stinky attitude towards CPS? Let’s just say I have a problem with how they go about their “business”.

I always saw CPS as “the good guys” rescuing children from childhoods no one should have to experience; when CPS (Child Protective Services) fanned out into early intervention and differential response approaches (this is going to sound weird) I couldn’t be more excited because this meant less “strong arm” more education, prevention, redirection and support – but that’s not what happened…

Part of the inherent dilemma of CPS intervention is the social work approach vs. the legal approach and I say “vs.” because of how polar each framework is.

I was trained in the social work approach that means education with connection to community services while working towards diversion from legal intervention. On the flipside there is a legal aspect to the work that can entail collaboration with criminal court, family court, juvenile court, probation, etc. The problem is when you have a social worker who sees themselves as an officer of the court or, equally as problematic, when a legal professional is assigned social work type responsibilities. So we’re real clear on this: social workers did not go to law school to become social workers and attorneys did not go to social work school to become attorneys yet CPS work requires that these two professions walk around in the same realm – see the potential for things to go really wrong?

More upsetting then the outward role blending (or mishmash) is when a CPS worker goes in social work style then turns “all legal” on a family/client. This is what I mean by that:

Engagement between a client and any mental health professional is considered “Step #1” and key in developing the working relationship. CPS workers are already at a disadvantage from the first knock at the client’s door by virtue of their role; it doesn’t matter how nice or saint-like the worker is – the minute he or she identifies him/herself as a CPS worker you can expect any reaction from a flood of tears to terroristic threatening (with a slammed door for emphasis and I’m sorry, someone slamming a door in your face when you’re just doing your job and/or trying to help does hurt your feelings).

Regardless of the initial reaction the CPS worker does have to go in there, assess everyone’s safety and figure out what the deal is that brought him/her to the home to begin with. Often to do that the CPS worker will try to engage the client by “catching them with honey instead of vinegar” so he or she will be using his/her best social work techniques in order to get the client to trust him/her and disclose the truth of what’s going on.

“What’s going on” is often deeply personal and private information – painfully intimate relationship stuff you don’t typically talk about with just anyone. If a client ends up trusting his/her CPS worker who “works the case” from a social work perspective, the case can end up being a win-win all the way around: no one gets prosecuted or arrested, supportive services and resources are in-place, past child abuse is reconciled and future child abuse averted BUT just imagine trusting someone who then turns around and uses everything you said (and didn’t say) in a court of law as evidence “in building” a CPS case against you!

The latter scenario is what happens when a CPS worker goes into the case in social worker mode but then decides to work the case as “an officer of the law” WITHOUT informing the client that that’s what the plan is. When this happens clients rightfully feel tricked, deceived, betrayed, violated and taken advantage of – NOT the best way to feel in a working relationship where your family’s fate hangs in the balance but that’s what these clients are left with because it’s extremely rare for a CPS worker to ever be switched off a case. After such a betrayal, can you imagine how the subsequent CPS worker visits go?

Not all CPS workers operate in this fashion but curiously those who do seem to feel like they’ve done nothing wrong; they’ve gotten the client to tell them the honest truth so mission accomplished – presenting their “professional opinion” to the court is just doing their job so no hard feelings, right? (And if you harbor hard feelings about the way you’ve been treated, rest assured at the subsequent review hearing that attitude WILL be reported to the court as more evidence against you. As a heads up: judges don’t look favorably on clients who are impolite or behaving badly towards their workers.)

By now some red lights should be going off for you: a CPS worker isn’t employed by the judge or the judiciary and if all of this is happening in a court of law, isn’t there supposed to be unbiased, unprejudiced impartiality going on where CPS and the client are seen and treated as equal parties? Sit in any courtroom around the country where a CPS case is being heard and it’ll be immediately clear whose “show” it is and in some cases – like April McVeigh’s and Terri Polm’s – a judge putting blind faith into CPS can have tragic and deadly consequences.

The problem with consequences is that for CPS there really aren’t any; unlike doctors who can be subject to lawsuit for malpractice, CPS workers can’t be sued for malpractice because they’re given the “professional courtesy” of immunity – the same courtesy extended to judges. The reasoning goes that without this immunity, the CPS worker and/or judge would not be able to perform in his/her duties because a fear of being sued would loom largely over their heads rendering them incapable of action.

What I find absolutely ridiculous about this explanation is that surgeons and doctors perform their duties without immunity and function just fine – a fear of malpractice keeps them making cautious judgments, evidence-based diagnoses and best-practice treatments – standards that CPS workers and judges should be held accountable to since they too are dealing with potentially life-or-death situations. With immunity however, CPS workers and judges just have to “act in good faith” so even if a CPS worker or judge acted in outright complete malice they’re justified by reason of good faith.

Despite some tragic and horrifically botched CPS cases from 2003 – 2011, the State of Hawaii showed then Department of Human Services Director, Lillian B. Koller, good faith for her good faith efforts but the State of South Carolina, where Koller is now employed as their Director of Social Services is not flowing suit. In a Senate subcommittee hearing held April 16th, Koller responded to SC lawmakers in much the same way as she did to HI lawmakers. Click hear to see the news broadcast of that hearing:

Worse is hearing the details of a case eerily similar to April McVeigh and Terri Polm’s (the attached You Tube video) where an aunt repetitively begged for custody of her 4 year-old nephew only for the boy to die by his father’s hands, exactly as the aunt had feared.

In the SC newscast, Koller tells lawmakers that CPS workers carry an average caseload of 6 (families) while the CPS workers themselves have complained of caseloads with 50 – 70 children. According to the Child Welfare League of America standards, caseworkers should carry an average caseload of 12 – 17 (“back in the day” I was told 20 was an average/acceptable caseload) but recall Hawaii CPS workers telling me during Koller’s reign that they often carried an average of 30 cases (a fact that would be categorized as one of Koller’s misrepresentations).

One of the CPS workers I spoke with had talked about some of the problems she was facing at home as a result of her high caseload: never home on-time, always working late, husband always having to do her share – and while her own children were aware of her job and its responsibilities, they also knew that she was spending her entire day with other kids so when she came home, they wouldn’t hide their disappointment, anger and resentment towards her – and she couldn’t hide her exhaustion as she tried to muster some enthusiasm for her own children.

When it’s bad on the outside (lawmakers with complaints), bad on the inside (a defensive administration and CPS workers fearing backlash for legitimate concerns) and bad for the children and families (can’t get any worse then death) Koller’s “Hell no I won’t go” attitude is not going to make anything better for anyone but kudos to South Carolina for doing what Hawaii should have.

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