Child Protective Services

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When I was a young man, I worked two years for Child Protective Services (CPS). It’s a strange job, going to people’s homes to talk to them about complaints that other people have made about how they treat their children.

Investigating reports of child abuse is just the beginning of the job in CPS and the simplest part. For those cases where abuse and/or neglect are serious, social workers develop plans that the families must follow, often including counseling and drug treatment. Then there are court hearings, where the CPS worker is represented by a state Attorney General, and the parents are represented by a private attorney or by a state-appointed attorney. Usually the two attorneys work out an agreement and sell it to the CPS worker and the family.

I had become a Quaker while I was in college, and I found that my Quaker practices became critical in my work with CPS. And I also found that my work with CPS was excellent training for applying Quaker practices to the real world.

For example, the kinds of courtroom negotiations that are common in CPS work are excellent opportunities to practice Quaker skills of discernment. During a CPS investigation, the main question is whether the child is safe in the family. Sometimes there are events that, on their face and according to the manual, would dictate that a child should be removed from the home. According to the manual, if a child is hit by an adult in the home, and if that blow leaves a bruise, then the child is unsafe. But in actuality, that’s not always so.

A large number of people I worked with in the Cascade foothills of Washington had moved there from rural North Carolina, from a culture where “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was seen as common sense. I quickly came to realize that my job with these parents was to educate them about the CPS system and about the trouble they would get into if they continued to use corporal punishment. While I was truthful when writing my reports about these families, I didn’t always tell the whole truth. I’ve found the Dalai Lama‘s “Fifth Rule for Living” to be helpful: “Learn the rules, so you can break them properly.” The critical word here is “properly.” To break the rules properly requires discernment.

If I had seen a bruise on a child from one of those families from North Carolina, I likely would not have put that in my report. I had to discern whether I thought the child was in danger of being hurt more badly in the future. There is no certainty. I used sitting in silence, emptying my mind, and then considering the details – using due diligence and seasoning to decide.

Had I reported the bruise, the child would likely have been put into a foster home. That was the system. A bruise causes a reflex action in the system. I saw families being seriously harmed by social workers who followed the rules without considering the harm they were doing. The CPS system attempts to reduce situations to a set of rules and policies. The rules are good guidelines for thinking through situations and for working with other people. But . . . it is crucial to know how to discern when and how to break the rules “properly.”

A few CPS complaints that I investigated were simple misunderstandings – like the time I was called to school to talk to a seven-year-old who had a black eye. He had told his teacher that his father had hit him, which the teacher was required by law to report.

When I talked with the boy, I asked him to tell me about how he got his black eye. It was from something normal like playing baseball or falling off his bicycle. So then I asked why he had told his teacher that his father had hit him. He said that his father had said it to friends and everyone had laughed, so he thought it must be funny.

After you talk to a child, you talk to the parents. This father was appalled, of course, that CPS had been called in. He remembered the joke, which had been an off-hand remark to good friends, who had laughed because of how ridiculous it was.

Usually however, the complaints I investigated were about people well acquainted with CPS. Many families are struggling. I have learned that neglect is a much bigger problem than abuse. Often, mothers leave young children alone while they party, or get drunk or stoned, or are in abusive relationships. The higher-profile cases of physical and sexual abuse are often less harmful than everyday neglect.

I was only involved in removing a child from a home one time. On a routine investigation of neglect, I discovered a five-year-old boy being cared for by a mother who was mentally ill. There were dog feces all over the house. And even more troubling, the five-year-old boy did not speak. He had been so isolated that he had not learned to talk. I discussed the case with my supervisor and a team – the standard practice. Then I went with a policeman and took the boy to a foster home. After that, I don’t know what happened. A different department works to find long-term homes for these children.

Another of my indelible memories is of a newborn infant addicted to heroin. I took her from the hospital to foster care in the home of a retired pediatric nurse who had the expertise and the medical equipment to help newborns get through drug withdrawals.

I was amazed by this foster family. Besides the super-competent and caring pediatric nurse as mom, there were several high-achieving, friendly teenagers in the house. The father was a policeman. He was amazing – kind, thoughtful, effective. I have met many such policemen, and I cringe whenever I hear Quakers stereotyping police as bad guys.

The Quaker practices of careful listening and careful discernment are ones that many good people follow in all walks of life. What is distinctive about Quakers is that we follow those practices intentionally, with awareness, and with the support of our communities. I am keenly aware that if I had had the support of a Quaker Meeting while I was doing my work with CPS, I would have done it much better.

As it was, in my CPS work, I relied on my individual Quaker commitment to see and speak to “that of god” in everyone. Without that commitment, I would have been lost. Standard training in social work covers “active listening” and other social skills, but the commitment, faith, and ability to see and speak to that of god in others – the disturbed and unruly child, the abusive and drug addicted parent, the macho and rigid policeman, the clueless CPS supervisor – these are not taught! Truly, the people one encounters doing CPS work are often more difficult than the average. What good training for learning the Quaker way!  ~~~

Timothy Clark grew up in a ridiculously loving and happy family in Spokane, Washington. He hitchhiked across the U.S. and Europe when he was nineteen, and since then, he’s been obsessed with learning how culture works and changes, how different cultures sense, feel, think, and act so differently. He is a member of Whidbey Island Friends Meeting (NPYM).