I have a very short commute to work, only three miles. I’m on the road a maximum of fifteen minutes depending on traffic, and I relish those fifteen minutes of morning NPR news. I’ve realized that like most news programs, Morning Edition follows a certain format. I tend to be in the car at the same time every day, and during those fifteen minutes, I typically here NPR’s exploration of the conservative point of view. During the government shut down a few months ago, I spent my short drive to work getting all riled up by some boneheaded Republican explaining why toying with people’s livelihoods was good for the country. Still, it’s NPR, and I’m addicted.
This past week, my short listening session was dominated by a case in the Massachusetts news about our state Department of Children and Families (DCF). This is the agency formerly known as the Department of Social Services, and it runs the foster care system. Every so often DCF is in the news, usually for an event gone wrong, and such is the case with Jeremiah Oliver, a five year old boy living in an abusive household who went missing a few weeks ago and is presumed dead by authorities.
The timeline of events is ripe for criticism: the family came under DCF scrutiny as far back as September 2011. A social worker who has since been fired failed to make monthly visits to the home. Jeremiah’s older sister finally told a school guidance counselor about her mother’s boyfriend Alberto Sierra, a man who had been terrorizing their home for months. When the authorities finally stepped in, only two of the three Oliver children could be found, and the anti-DCF firestorm began.
Both of our children are adopted through DCF. Our kids both came into foster care at birth, so they were certainly spared many of the horrors most of the older children in the system have experienced to get them there in the first place, but I have a strong affection for the work that these social workers do, work that is incredibly hard, unrewarding, underpaid, and all-too-easy to criticize.
In Massachusetts, DCF has an Adoption Unit filled with social workers whose goal is to advocate for pre-adoptive families as they move through the process of welcoming a foster child into their home with the hopes of becoming a “forever family” for that child. These are the DCF social workers who have the easier job, relatively speaking, and we hear it’s where many social workers end up because it’s one of the rare positions within the agency where they get to experience happiness and joy in their work.
Most of the social workers at DCF, including a good friend of ours, work on the other side, the side that deals with stepping into families and making the decision whether or not to separate children from their parents. The work is devastatingly hard, and there is no end to the shock these social workers experience anew walking into homes where parents are simply unable to care for the children in the ways that they usually very much want to. And when a social worker must make the decision to take a child away, these parents do not typically relinquish their children willingly; some are violent, most are belligerent. The emotional wear and tear on these people who do incredibly difficult work is unending.
The outrage over Jeremiah Oliver is that our system failed this little boy. I wonder though how we failed our system. Perhaps the fear-mongering news reports are correct and this social worker was an inept freeloader taking lazy strolls through town when families like the Olivers should have been watched far more closely. Or maybe this worker was extremely overworked, as reports suggest that she filed several grievances about an increased case load, and couldn’t possible do her job effectively without compromising some other aspect of her own life.
When our daughter was an infant, she qualified for Early Intervention services due to the at-risk circumstances of her birth, circumstances that led her to become a foster child in the first place. Over the three years that she was involved with Early Intervention, I contacted our state legislatures a half dozen times about threatened cuts to the program. Our leaders did in fact raise the minimum delay percentage over those three years, a short-sighted measure that would cut costs by effectively shutting out babies and toddlers who used to qualify for services but would no longer. Taking kids out of safety net systems like EI help ensure that these kids have a fighting chance. If we don’t take care of these kids early, we end up taking care of them later in life, either in prisons or homeless shelters or public assistance.
This is the mentality our country has about social services though. We don’t say out loud that kids should pay for their parents’ poor choices, but our legislation and personal positions on funding often speak volumes. In the case of Jeremiah Oliver, it’s so easy to grab the pitchforks and light the torches, but what are any of us really doing to make sure that our welfare system actually has the resources available to it to protect these kids? We can create new guidelines and oversight and add to the list of unfunded mandates–a list that I am far too aware of as a public school teacher–but without the money to back it up, we’re still going to burn out our social workers and make it impossible for them to do their jobs, the same thing that is happening to our teachers.
It’s absolutely a tragedy that this little boy is missing and possibly dead. Should the social worker have done more? Yes. Could the social worker have done more? I don’t think we can know without more information about the specifics of her job, her case load, her supervisors, her support staff…She failed to follow certain protocols, but were those protocols put in place by bureaucrats who never asked whether or not they could be legitimately carried out?
Let’s just hold off on jumping on the bandwagon of hatred.