Child protection workers are ‘angels’

6-21-2016
Kim Jorgensen is a new child protection social worker in Hennepin County. “I’m drawn to dealing with hard situations and learning we can get through them and things can be OK. I can be part of immediate solutions sometimes.”
Kim Jorgensen is a new child protection social worker in Hennepin County. “I’m drawn to dealing with hard situations and learning we can get through them and things can be OK. I can be part of immediate solutions sometimes.”

When you look at everything our child protection workers do in the course of a week, the math becomes a bit staggering.

Theoretically, social workers in Hennepin County and across the state work 40 hours a week. But in reality, that number is often much higher.

An average week can include:

  • Performing a home visit for every family that’s part of a worker’s caseload, up to three times a month, lasting an hour each trip plus travel time.
  • Attending anywhere from one to six court hearings a week, each requiring a few hours of waiting time and about four hours to complete a pre-hearing report.
  • Driving children to supervised visits with their parents and monitoring them, roughly three hours per visit.
  • Setting up doctor and dentist appointments, which can involve driving the children and waiting for them, too.
  • Spending four hours a week referring families to services such as counseling or drug treatment.
  • Spending 1-2 hours a week setting up chemical dependency assessments.
  • Acting as the coordinator between agencies who helps children and families, including police, the courts and other social services.

Consider that workers in Hennepin County handle up to 18 cases each, and you have to multiply those numbers many times over.

“Even after working 60 hours, I wonder how I accomplished everything I did, but I still have a to-do list of 35 to 40 things,” says child protection social worker Sara Crotteau. “It’s like a constant cycle. You can’t be successful in this job if you can’t be OK with that. You’re never going to leave at the end of the day feeling like there’s nothing left to do.”

Workers see kids and parents at their most vulnerable in the worst of circumstances. They see children who are left alone, who don’t have enough food, who have addicted parents, who are physically or sexually abused.

Like many Minnesota counties, Hennepin is experiencing high turnover from rising numbers of abuse and neglect reports, overwhelmed workers and increased demand for more paperwork on top of it all.

 “We have workers who will never admit it, but they are online doing their documentation at 2 in the morning,” says AFSCME Local 34 president Jean Diederich. “We have workers who don’t have a life. They are losing their vacation time: They’re afraid if they take it, something will fall through the cracks. They’re so afraid of something bad happening to a kid on their watch. They live under that constant fear.

“It takes such a special person,” Diederich says. “They’re all angels. They may not have wings we can see, but anyone who does this as a livelihood, they’re doing this to keep kids safe.”

THE INVESTIGATOR

Before he became a Hennepin County child protection investigator, Derek Zumbach was an art teacher, and he loved working with kids.

“But I would just notice that kids’ home lives had more impact on their mental health and how well they did in school than anything that happened in school,” Zumbach says. “It was really obvious we’d be building all week, building rapport, building up strength, building the kids up. Then they’d go home for the weekend, and they’d come back and be acting out horribly, be violent toward their peers. It was like everything would reset.”

Zumbach felt he could have a more direct impact on children by helping their struggling families. He went back to school for social work at the University of Minnesota and discovered the child protection system. He started working for the county about a year ago.

“When I learned about the job, I fell in love with it pretty quickly,” he says. “I feel very at home in the work: I felt like my strengths lie in building a quick rapport, going into a heated situation, calming everybody down, seeing what’s happening and then building an assessment on that.

“You could come in with a punitive approach. Instead I like to say to the parents, ‘OK, it seems like things got out of hand, it sounds like you know you’ve made some mistakes. We’re going to work with you to try to turn things around.’ Usually families aren’t proud of the things that happened.”

As an investigator, Zumbach sees himself as a first responder. Investigators come in after screeners have taken the initial reports of neglect or abuse, figured out if the allegations meet the criteria, and decided if there’s a potential case. Zumbach tries to go in respectfully, but still ask the tough questions.

Investigators must respond within 24 hours to five days depending on the severity of the allegations. Zumbach reads the report, forwards it to the police and talks to children, parents and involved professionals such as doctors or teachers.

“It really is about comparing stories,” Zumbach says. “People can be extraordinarily honest about things. Even if they’re not, it’s pretty easy for an experienced social worker or someone who’s been in human services for a while to get a bead on whether someone’s lying or not.”

Allegations don’t always hold up to scrutiny. It’s not uncommon for misunderstandings to occur or for a scorned ex to make a false report, he says. When there is a case, the less serious ones go to family assessment, which gives people the option to use services such as parenting classes. More serious cases, which entail a higher risk of harm, are sent to social workers for supervision. Some cases go to court, too.

Derek Zumbach (left) joins a rally at Hennepin County Government Center, calling for reduced caseloads so social workers in child protection can better help kids and their families.
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Zumbach says the hardest parts of the job are winning buy-in from parents who don’t think there is a problem, and dealing with domestic violence.

There’s something he wishes the public could or would understand:

“You’re always worried about the kids, about whether or not people are doing what they say they’re going to do. You’re doing your best to create a safe situation. But you can’t live with the children, you can’t be there 24/7, so you can’t be 100 percent sure,” Zumbach says. “You have to have a little faith.”

THE NEWCOMER

Once investigators like Zumbach have finished looking into allegations and found there’s a basis for them, the more serious cases go to child protection social workers like Kim Jorgensen. She started with Hennepin County in late January, and held a similar job in Dallas for two years.

“I’m never just at a desk all day. I’m always moving, really interacting,” Jorgensen says. “I like to help the family understand the situation and what’s going on. I’m drawn to dealing with hard situations and learning we can get through them and things can be OK. I can be part of immediate solutions sometimes.”

The caseload can be overwhelming. She had a month of training, and three months after that, was up to 18 cases.

No two cases are alike. They may involve excessive discipline like a parent picking up a child and throwing him down, or a father yelling and intimidating a child to the point he or she doesn’t want to return home. A parent may drink to excess, throw things and threaten to kill a family pet.

Social workers like Jorgensen visit parents and children in their homes, supervise parent-child visits at county offices and attend court hearings. They meet with teachers, doctors, therapists and probation officers; and coordinate services including parenting education and mental health evaluations. They check how kids are doing academically, medically and behaviorally. They put together a plan for each family about what they need to do to keep or regain their kids.

When Jorgensen first visits a home, she’ll check for common safety hazards like clothes in front of a heating source and adequate sleeping space. If drugs or alcohol are part of an allegation, she’ll look for signs of paraphernalia, and may ask to look in cupboards or refrigerators.

“There are so many things that are preventable,” she explains to families. “We don’t want you to have a tragedy in your home.”

When she’s talking to kids, Jorgensen likes to play with Legos or other toys to make the situation less strange and frightening for them. She’ll ask kids what their day was like at school, what it’s like at home, what’s going well, what fun things they did with their parents, and what happens when they get in trouble. She’ll ask if anyone who hurts them or makes them feel afraid comes into the home, and if they have enough to eat.

She tries to approach families with respect and empathy. She works with many immigrant families, and works to help them understand that what was acceptable in terms of physical discipline in their native countries may be very different here.

“If you decrease the anxiety, you might also decrease some of the resistance and lashing out at the caseworker,” Jorgensen says. “Parents can still be defensive anyway. It’s someone coming into your home and telling you how to parent. That’s difficult. We’re like the mother-in-law, but we have a lot of power.”

What she wishes the public knew?

“Abuse and neglect is not necessarily about bad parents,” Jorgensen says. “It’s not typically because they’ve sought to be abusive or neglectful. Abuse and neglect happen when parents are stressed and don’t have enough resources, are living in poverty, experiencing racism in the community and having their own legacy of trauma. It’s a perfect storm, and it’s hard to break out of that in a lasting way.”

PASSION FOR THE JOB

Child protection social worker Sara Crotteau grew up near a reservation in Wisconsin, where she saw the disproportionate number of Native American children in foster care firsthand: “The rates are through the roof. I always knew I wanted to work with that population.”

Crotteau joined Hennepin County’s Indian Child Welfare Unit, and before that, she ran a shelter for kids.

In the Native community, she says, the large majority of cases involve neglect, usually related to chemical dependency, and not physical abuse. Caseworkers see kids missing school, not having enough food or staying alone unsupervised. They also see babies born testing positive for substances their mothers had used while pregnant. Kids grow up in a constant state of trauma in communities with high crime and poverty rates.

There’s a stereotype that social workers take children from good parents, and leave kids with bad ones, which simply isn’t true: “If kids can’t be at home, it’s because we’ve done the work,” Crotteau says. “We’ve done good assessments to decide if kids are safe or not. It’s not a random decision.”

“It’s incredibly difficult work,” Crotteau says. “We’re not paid very well. The hours are outrageous. It’s not a job you would just choose for the heck of it. I think you have to have a real passion for working with real families. They have everything stacked against them, and most people have already given up on them. But we know that long-term outcomes for kids who can stay with their parent are much better than if they’re in foster care -- if there’s a way to safely make that happen.”

But when kids aren’t safe, social workers like Crotteau work with the police and courts, who remove the children from the home. Part of the terrible frustration and fear that workers are feeling right now is there may be no place to put those kids. The overloaded system is causing a shortage of both shelter and foster home beds. In some cases, a child has to remain in the home with his or her abuser until a bed opens up, even after a judge has ruled the child is not safe there.

She says it’s also difficult when parents haven’t done enough to get their kids back, and DHS has to move to terminate parental rights, even when that’s the best outcome.

“I have to remind myself that’s not a failure of my own,” she says. “It’s easy to think if I had a couple of extra hours a week to spend with a family the outcome would be better. Even with the parents who aren’t doing anything, it’s devastating to know the kids are never going to have that relationship with their parents again. Even if it’s not safe, it’s final.”

The best part of her job, which happens more often than not, is when she gets to send children back home, feeling confident the kids are safe and the family is doing well.

 “If I can play a role in that, that’s my goal,” Crotteau says. “If I have to be stressed out every day to get that one kid back to his parents, that’s OK. I can live with that.”

THE NEW PATH

For more than 20 years, Mary Kay Libra helped families in their worst moments. She’s frustrated by negative news reports about child protection because nothing is as simple as it seems.

“The decisions we have to make are not simple decisions,” she says. “You’re trying to deal with a child’s life and balance what’s best for them with the rights of their parents and the resources that are available. It’s also not possible to predict people’s behavior.”

Her hardest cases involve working with parents who don’t believe they’ve done anything wrong, or those struggling with mental illness or addiction.

“They love their kids, but they’re using and they can’t seem to stop,” Libra says. “Their kids are on their own and trying to fend for themselves. Mentally ill parents may not understand what their illness means and how they’re neglecting their children. They love them very much and just can’t care for them.”

The heavy caseloads make it even more difficult: Working up to 18 cases at once, the hours are crazy. People’s personal plans are constantly interrupted. If workers get a call a child is in imminent danger or is threatening suicide, they’re there, even in the middle of the night.

What’s the toll on workers? “You’re just totally overloaded, your brain doesn’t stop, a tremendous loss of sleep, you can’t leave the cases at work, you take them everywhere you go,” Libra says. Venting with co-workers helps. But that’s no longer enough. “There were a lot of workers like me who have held out this long, hoping it would get better, and it hasn’t, so I had to do something for myself.”

Libra shifted over to family assessment, which provides voluntary services to lower-risk families. Her passion for doing the job remains unchanged.

“I’m getting the chance to help some of these families stay together and keeping kids safe,” Libra says. “Those things have always been larger than the frustrations and the bad parts of the job. You can deal with it because one family is hugely successful and you can reunify them and they’re happy. You see them years later, and you know things are going well.”