Authors note: I wrote and posted this at MyDD earlier this summer in response to another bloggers question about what I did as a Child Protection Investigator. As it seems a bit slow on the blogs during the holiday week, I thought I would post something I wrote when I could still put more than five sentences together.
Please note that this is a very long and deeply personal diary. If you are not into that sort of thing, please press the back arrow.
I have long believed that we are more alike than not, and that our stories may have relevance to others. I also think, to simplify C. Wright Mills, that the personal is political, and our lives are interwoven with personal and political experiences. I am certain this is true, even if we are not always aware of this. So if you are interested, you are welcome to follow me down the rabbit hole…
A fellow blogger requested that I tell her about my job, and perhaps give an example of an actual case. I am unable to give you any real case situations, because the privacy of our clients is one of the most important things we must protect. It is also (thank goodness), against the law to reveal any confidential information. However, I can tell you what I do, and give you some general idea of the kinds of cases I have dealt with. The last half of this diary deals specifically with some of my experiences in child protection.
First some background on me. (This is the long and personal part) I live in northern Minnesota, on a beautiful lake (lucky me), and have lived in this area for just over eight years. My mother is from northern Minnesota and my Dad is from northern Iowa. They met when they were 15 and 16 at a summer camp in Minnesota, have been married for 48 years, and they love each other more now than ever (lucky them).
My Mom wanted to travel, and as poor teachers the only way we could do it was for them to work overseas. We moved to Tehran, Iran in 1974, and lived there until we were evacuated in 1979 during the revolution. My parents, who started out as Goldwater Republicans, have evolved to become very progressive liberals. My Dad voted for Nixon, Mom voted for McGovern, and I remember her being very sad when he only won his home state of South Dakota. I remember watching some of the impeachment hearings; I did not really understand what was going on; I was just a little girl.
Mom raised us to not judge people by the color of their skin or for any other reason, and spoke often about hearing this amazing, eloquent man speaking at an Iowa college in the early ’60’s. She had never heard of him before, but was drawn to him and the things he was talking about. She later found out his name was Martin Luther King.
I am fairly certain the last time my Dad voted Republican was in 1980. He is still rather economically conservative, but he told me when he saw Reagan standing with Jerry Falwell, Mr. Reagan lost his vote in 1984. A few years ago, he started telling me about some awesome website called Moveon.org (heh), and started sending me some of the more progressive stuff I was into at the same time. He was so very outraged about the war. It was very cool and I let him teach me what he had learned.
After being evacuated from Iran in ’79, my parents got jobs at a small town school in northern North Dakota. That was really tough. The other kids thought I was from Mars and I was the superintendent’s daughter. I was doomed. My Mom helped me escape two years later when she and I moved to Grand Forks, so she could get her MA in education, and I could stop feeling as if I were an alien. I finished my Sr. year of high school and started my first year at the University of North Dakota (UND) in 1981-82. That would also be the year that I came out as a lesbian to my parents. Dad was ok with it, but Mom had more difficulty. They were both afraid for me, and the problems they thought I would encounter in life. Around ten or so years later my Mom fought against prop 2 in Colorado.
I spent a lot of years in college, and got pretty involved in university and state politics while at the University of North Dakota. I went to almost every state Democratic convention through the ’80’s, and was a Jackson delegate in ’88. I have a BA in Sociology and a BSW in Social Work. I tried working on a MA in Albuquerque in the early ’90’s, but did not do so well. I worked hard for Clinton in 1992, and was so happy to have voted for a winning Democrat for the first time in my life. I liked Bill and supported him through the BS impeachment hearings. I did think he was too conservative. This has helped me realize that we could elect Martin Luther King, Gandhi, or Jesus Christ to the Oval Office, and absolutely nothing would change, unless we the people make them change. This is a very important lesson for us now, as Barack Obama will not be able to do anything without us.
After my abject failure in my MA program (I was not a very dedicated student, I was having sooo much fun in Albuquerque, and then had a rather horrible accident while painting a grand entry way), I returned to Grand Forks and finished my BSW. I graduated and became a VISTA and worked as the Project Coordinator for Habitat for Humanity. Then in 1997, the millennial flood hit us and we were evacuated twice. First from our home near the river, and then from the hotel to which we had fled. Practically the entire cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks were evacuated, around 30,000+ people. We were out of our house for almost a month and when we returned, we did still have a home. Even though we did not live in the flood plain, our house happened to be way above the normal flooding level, even though we lived close to the river, we had purchased flood insurance. There was so much snow that year, it just made sense. We were very lucky.
Although it has been rather painful, I have been trying to watch what has been happening to Cedar Rapids, and the rest of the flooded mid-west. My heart goes out to them, and hope that they can come back the way Grand Forks has. This will be much more difficult for them, as we had the Clinton FEMA and they have the Bush FEMA. Oh and flood insurance actually covers very little, but if you do not have it, you are totally screwed. Global Climate Change anyone? How do you think that will effect disaster relief in the future?
Anyway, we made it through the flood. We lived without running water for about two weeks or so and had no electricity for around a month. The entire city was devastated. The downtown area burned as the flood raged and the recovery was really hard. We all did what North Dakotan’s do; we worked hard and we recovered. We fixed up our house and sold it as my partner finished her Nurse Practitioner program. Then moved to northern Wisconsin so she could work at a Native American clinic on a Reservation. We lived there for two years and finally moved to my beloved Minnesota in 2000. I always say I grew up in Minnesota, as I spent almost every summer of my childhood at our family’s lake cabin on a beautiful lake near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. My parents are there right now (lucky them).
About four years ago my partner and I broke up after nearly twenty years together. It was very devastating to me as it turned into a rather ugly divorce. I think I started losing my mind around this time. Call it a mid-life crisis, nervous breakdown, whatever. It has been a very difficult five or so years. Hell, maybe it started when Clinton was impeached and then Bush stole the 2000 elections. Heh. Anyway, I do not think my story is all that unique, maybe a bit bizarre as my therapist told me once, but I do think there are a lot of people going through similar issues. I think we are living in a time of great change, and that change can be devastating and frightening and horrible for many of us. I will say that I met someone three years ago who is beautiful inside and out. I hope that I can be a better person to her than I have been to myself and others in the past.
Now on to the question you had originally asked me (finally!). I am a licensed social worker (LSW), and have worked as a Child Protection Assessment Worker (investigator) since February 14, 2001. I worked for a county agency in their child protection unit from 2001 until 2005. I then went to work for a northern Minnesota Native American Tribe in 2005. In Minnesota, the counties have had almost exclusive control over issues of child protection on Reservations. That is until very recently, when a very smart and brave woman led her Tribe to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and won the right to have three Anishinabe Tribes take back control of child protection. Now these Tribes have the same rights and responsibilities as the counties. This is a demonstration project and we will see how it plays out. So far there are good points and some not so good things occurring.
The job of a Child Protection investigator is to help screen intakes that may be allegations of child maltreatment and/or neglect. This worker will help decide if there are legitimate concerns. Then a risk and safety assessment is done to decide whether the child is at immediate risk for harm, as in sexual or severe physical abuse. If this is the case, the investigator is required to place the child(ren) on a 72 hour protective hold, and then continue to assess the allegations. If it is determined that the child(ren) cannot safely return to their homes, the investigator prepares a document called a CHIPS petition (Child in Need of Protection or Services), and then takes the CHIPS to Tribal Court to go before a judge. She makes the final decision. If the child(ren) remain outside of the home, (and even if they do not, but we open a case), the investigator is required to assess the needs of the family, and work with a case manager to try and help them get their child(ren) back home and/or problems solved. It works much the same way at the counties.
If we determine that there is no immanent risk of harm to the child(ren), but there are still are child welfare and/or protection concerns, the investigator must first meet with the family, and try to address the problematic issues. The investigator is a front line worker, and must go to client’s homes to talk to them about some of the most difficult issues possible. I have learned that no matter what the situation is, almost everyone loves their children, but many factors can be in place that help create situations where children may be harmed or neglected. There are very few people who actually want to hurt their children, and usually, if you treat people with respect and let them be the experts of their own lives, we can work together to help them figure out how to do better. We are supposed to help people get the services they need to improve their lives, the lives of their children, and ultimately reunite their families.
Now this is sort of an ideal I have and is pretty much the standard set by the state and Tribe. It is by no means perfect, but in the system we have, it is possibly the best we can do. However, it rarely works out this way. When I worked at the county I began seeing how our agency was more concerned with money than families, and the struggle to help families became too hard. At the Tribe I have discovered that we may be trying to do too much.
We have taken children from their homes too frequently, and often for reasons I disagree with. I have had to give clients drug tests, and if they test positive for one of the really bad ones (i.e. meth, opiates without a prescription, etc.) I have been told to remove their children. I think this is wrong. I think that we all should do more to offer up-front services to clients, and stop trying to terrorize families with the threat of losing their children if they do not stop drinking or doing drugs. My Director has told me many times to get drug tests based on rumors. When this happens, I have been astonished by this, and asked my boss what I should do if they refuse the drug test. She has often told me to take their kids. Often there is no real proof, just rumors that they were on drugs. We actually had an open case where the family had completed all of their goals, and rather remarkably, had gotten their children back. After their case was closed, there were a couple of ‘concerns’ about them, and the other investigator was told to investigate them twice over a few months time. They had given clean U/A’s (urinalyses) and then my boss told me to do another visit. I asked her what to do if they refused and she told me to take their children. I asked how I was supposed to justify this in court, and she seemed to think that I would have no problem. Now I could probably take children away from a ham sandwich, but just because I can does not make it right. Fortunately they complied (they were clean) and I told them if this came up again, I would go to bat for them with my boss and her boss if needed. I am not sure this will be enough. It has become impossible for me to do my job correctly and I sometimes (mostly) feel as though I am losing my mind. Certainly too many people are losing their children and not getting them back. I had a client tell me once, “Holli, we do what they (the case managers) want and then they change the rules on us”. I sort of scoffed at this at first but began realizing that this was actually true.
I attended a mandatory conference our agency put on last fall over a weekend. As I must drive 70 miles to work each day, and the conference was an hour and a half from my home, I was rather pissed about the whole thing. But I did what I was told and attended the first day. The conference was designed for people who had been taken from our Reservation as children, and the hope was for healing and welcoming some of them back home. Before the Indian Child Welfare Act in the 1970’s (and even now) many Indian children were permanently removed from their parents and their Tribes.
The day was very long and at the end of it a number of people started telling their own stories. I am certain that I can relay one that affected me deeply, as she told it in a public place, and in front of the media. She is an elder, and she said that when she was four years old, they (child protection) took her from her parents, and gave her to a good, white, Christian, home. A home where the ‘father’ came into her bed and raped her until she left the home as a young teen. She went on to say that she became a teen prostitute, and used drugs and alcohol, and on and on and on… I do not know if I have this exactly right, because my head started to explode as she was speaking. My mind screamed at me, “WE ARE STILL DOING THIS TO OUR PEOPLE”. Somehow I drove home afterwards, and went to bed for two weeks. I began (continued?) my nervous breakdown and have not been the same since. Now before anyone starts feeling sorry for me (PLEASE DO NOT), let me say that this has been a gift to me. I have been spinning down the deep, deep hole for almost nine months, and I have been circling it for over ten years. My rage and anger and bitterness grew more deadly every day. Somehow, my beautiful partner stayed with me and she has tried to help me. Others tried to help me, but I was so bloody stubborn. I held onto my hate like it was my best friend. I took this hate to the primaries, and began hating Obama and his supporters the way I have hated Republicans all these years.
And then something amazing happened. On June 1, 2008, after another horrible week (mostly of my own making), I lay in our bed; and I asked my guides or spirits or higher power or whatever, to help me have the strength to deal with my wretched life. Now I am NOT a Christian and really do not like any organized religion. In fact, I had hated them all for quite some time. Please don’t get me wrong, I have Christian friends, and many of them seem to truly embody the teachings of Christ, so I have a tremendous amount of respect for them, but I find any organized religion repugnant. So many crimes in the name of God.
So after this prayer, I fell asleep, and when I woke up the next morning, I started journaling as I have for the past five years. As I was writing I suddenly realized that I felt such joy that I could hardly believe such a feeling was possible. Mind you, nothing has really changed other than my attitude, but what a change it has made. I think I have searched for a spiritual awakening for a long time, and used to say “well, I think I believe in a higher power, something beyond us that connects us all.” Now I know. After a couple of days, all of this joy actually started worrying me, so I called my psychiatrist, because I thought I was possibly delusional. We talked for a while and she let me know that she thought I was ok. She told me to enjoy the feeling. I have been following her advice, but in truth, this is not always easy. I still get angry and frustrated, but I am able to not let it poison me any longer. Hate = poison. However, I am not a fool. No really, I’m not (mostly). I know that this is a very rough world and that there are many times that we must fight for what we need.
I think that right now is one of those times. I really do think that we have an opportunity to change this world. Do any of you remember when our water was so dirty and we were losing the eagles? Now there are so many eagles that they have taken them off of the endangered species list. And the Clean Water Act probably saved us from our selves. And is the ozone actually repairing itself? We can save our world. It will be very difficult and we will face many obstacles and NO ONE person can do this for us. WE MUST SUPPORT BARACK OBAMA NOW. The stakes are simply to high, and he needs our help now and after the election. If the candidate was Hillary Clinton, I would be saying the same thing, THEY CAN DO NOTHING WITHOUT US MAKING THEM DO IT!!! As Barack said “Now is the time…yes we can.”