The headlines are screaming. “CPS workers didn’t check on endangered child but filed records showing they did.” “Did CPS troubles allow another child to die?” “More CPS bigwigs quit, Texas House Speaker vows to make protecting abused kids a top priority.”
I don’t know all of the details, and neither do you. But here is what I do know. When I became the first County Budget Officer in Texas in 1977, it was an eye-opener. Only 30, I had just under five years of city experience under my belt. While I was at Dallas County just under two years, I fell in love with county government. Not the dirty politics, although I was treated very well.
It was the services a county provides I appreciated. I considered them the ugly services in our society. Counties administer and carry out services on behalf of the state. They generally cannot do anything unless state law allows them to do so, unlike a Home Rule City that can do just about anything they want to do unless the law specifically says they can’t. When a person dies, cannot be identified or any family member found, who takes care of the pauper burials? That would be the county.
There were 77 elected officials at the time I was at Dallas County. I assembled most of the many judges at one point to talk about the budgeting process. Apparently they didn’t assemble often back in those days, and they were anxious to talk. Not to me, but to themselves. There was a burning topic that was worrying them since it was about to have a huge impact on their workload – other than my Zero-Base Budgeting forms. The law had been changed. One little word was scaring them: “Neglected.” Laws that dealt with abused children in the legal system had been changed to say “abused and neglected.”
This was my introduction into the world of battered and abandon children. However, I had a dinky little office at first. It was square under part of the old county jail several floors up. I heard no noise, but the prisoners had a knack for stopping up the commodes. I had to move when ceiling gave way one night. But for the several months I was in that first office, I was only a few feet from one of the family law courts. There were benches outside and the typical windows in the doors.
So I got to see the daily stream of families going before the judge. It was usually a tragic picture. I didn’t dwell on it, and I don’t recall ever sitting in to listen to the hearings. I do remember sobbing coming from people on the benches outside.
Everybody pretty much understands the justice system as people are arrested and put in jail. It is also fairly easy to appreciate the actual court system where either the judge or a jury decides someone’s innocence or guilt. Even many of the aspects of the incarceration function get highlighted in Hollywood fashion.
But there is a core group of people who have the least glamorous jobs on earth. The mentally ill have to be treated and cared for. The parole officers have to keep up with those out of prison knowing that with the high recidivism rates they are likely to spend months or years monitoring people only to have them cycle right back though jail, courts and then prison before coming full circle back to the parole office.
The toughest job of them all, to me, is the Child Protective Services. They are the ones who have to respond to a police call or a judge’s order and confront the mother and take their child out of maternal arms and into a foster care system. Ugly, ugly, ugly. CPS folks have a high calling. You simply couldn’t desire their job for any kind of glory or reward many of us seek in a job.
And then comes the insult. Generally CPS folks and others like them in the state and county service system are paid nowhere close to their worth. We fret over teacher pay inequities. But nobody gives a damn about CPS workers. Most of us have never seen a CPS worker or a parole officer. Yet the pay isn’t the toughest hand dealt to the CPS worker. It’s the never-ending workload. And then cap it off with a lack of respect.
When I told the story about Gennie Egans a few blogs ago, there was something I didn’t share. The defense lawyer tried to blame the fire department, the medical examiner and police department for having mishandled some aspect of that episode. But he went out of his way to try to make the CPS workers the crown of the evil empire. When the accused mother had to turn over her other children to CPS workers, he portrayed the undoubtedly horrible scene like it was the fault of uncaring CPS workers. I didn’t understand why he did this until I got in the jury room.
The jurors were truly some of the most decent people in the world. Many didn’t want to believe a mother could kill her child. But two or three of these level-headed people let it be known they had no love for the CPS. They had seen or heard of experiences with family members. Never mind that the jurors left out the story as to why there was a CPS investigation in their family or neighborhood. They wanted to dwell on the separation scene or on the prodding of the CPS worker to look inside the house or to talk to the child.
Fortunately, the jurors were able to look beyond that particular bias. But the disdain for CPS workers and the words of the defense attorney haunted them temporarily and could have changed the outcome of the trial.
But here is the irony. Everybody in the state and county system knows that CPS workers are overworked. It would be nice if they only had to deal with a family once, but many of their calls are to families who are known from the multiple instances. But just exactly what would you do when repeaters are added to the otherwise growing population? Can you appreciate what happens when a law changes and the system not only has the authority but the obligation to deal with a “neglected” child in addition to a legally defined “abused” child?
And then the tragedy of a child’s death puts the issue on the front page. Heads Up! Mr. Speaker of the House. In what other world do you live in where you give workers a charge so significant, so massive in weight and then not give them the best supervision – and the damn resources to do the job effectively? How disingenuous to act like you care now that something has blown up in your face. Where were you and your predecessors and all 131 in the State House and Senate as CPS workers and many in the ugly services have been doing their jobs as best they can on the thin resources you give them? No brass building plaques or ribbon cutting photo ops, huh? Get into the trenches first and help!
I’m glad you are going to make child abuse a priority, Mr. Speaker. I would be more impressed if you had taken the initiative before you were forced to do so to save face.
BTW, did you even know that at one time our country had no child abuse laws. When they finally got around to writing some laws for the first time in New York, do you know where they turned to find a framework? They had to turn to animal abuse laws on the books! We worried about child abuse after we worried about animals.
Those in state and county “ugly” services should get more respect than they do. LFM