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Child Welfare Workers: The Unspoken First Responder - By Brenna Vidal

Updated: April 23, 2021



“A 59-year-old state welfare worker died Thursday of injuries she received from a beating more than four months ago while attempting to remove a 2-year-old from his abusive father’s custody” (Glanton, 2018).

Her name was Pamela Sue Knight. Prior to her tragic death, she was in therapy for her injuries. Injuries that were so severe, the physicians were teaching her how “to communicate using eye movements”, and had her engaged in physical therapy in hope that she would “regain movement in her arms and legs”. Pamela is one of numerous cases where child welfare workers were injured physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, some resulting in death.

As I write this I could tell you of stories where I have had mothers hold their children hostage in their home for 10 days while on a cocaine binge. Parents who have lunged at me in court and had to be pulled off of me by the bailiffs. I have had co-workers blamed for the death of a toddler, murdered by their parents. And, I have seen too many of these co-workers quit, or experience burnout by the effects of primary and secondary post traumatic stress.

The world of child welfare is taboo. It does not happen, no one talks about it, and no one sees it. Child welfare workers are the unspoken first responder.

In the Communications Act of 1934 the term “first responder” is not used. Instead, it is defined as “Public Safety Entity” which “means an entity that provides public safety services” (Parker, 2013). In fact, this definition, and a variety of similar ones, can be seen throughout history, as per “The Legal Definition of ‘First Responders’” in The National Academies Press. This includes, The Homeland Security Act of 2002, Homeland Security Directive 2003, as well as a variety of laws passed in 2002 by Congress for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA stated a “Public Safety Entity” is a “Federal, State, and local government and nongovernmental emergency public safety, fire, law enforcement, emergency response, emergency medical, and related personnel, agencies, and authorities” (Parker, 2013).

First Responders respond first to the scene of a crime or emergency: manmade or natural. When many are running away, first responders are running towards, but what about the children? Who runs towards them? “For every soldier that is traumatized abroad there are 10 children victimized in their own homes” (Kolk, 2015). In Michael W. Corrigan and Dr. Robert Foltz’s “Thank You, Child Welfare First Responders!” (2017), he explains child welfare workers, or child welfare first responders, as being the “life support” for children going through a “hurricane” and “constant state of trauma”. This “life support” is a total emotional investment of the child welfare worker - the type of individual who literally gives the shirt off of their back to a three year old boy who was just removed from his inebriated mother’s custody as he walked up the highway alone while she was passed out in an abandoned building. The child welfare workers provide support not only to the children, but to the biological parents, relatives, nonrelatives, and foster homes. They are responsible for legal representation of the case, as well as being a resource for residential treatment, juvenile justice programs, food, clothing, shelter, medical, and psychological needs. They love all of their children they are assigned to protect, even when being assigned typically two to three times the recommended caseload limits.

One of my cases: two boys, 10 and 11 years old, saw me so often that they became so bonded with me and started to refer to me as mom. They lived in a group home separated from their little sisters who were already adopted at 1 and 2 years old. Child welfare workers are completely selfless individuals “who actively choose, every single day, to sacrifice some of their own state of balance and peace of mind, to help this community grow stronger and safer” (Buncombe County Government, 2019).

A child welfare first responder, Brittany Plamann, and division manager, Melissa Blom, interviewed by CBS News (2019) stated “it’s not only hard work, its heart work”,“there are things you just - you can’t fathom”, and “there’s definitely doubt. Am I doing the right thing?”. In 2017 alone, more than a quarter of the 1,720 children who died from abuse and neglect were in the care of Child Protection Services (CPS). In February 2012, child welfare worker Elizabeth Griffin-Hall made a horrific 911 call, which ultimately ended with a biological father killing himself and his two sons with explosives, in front of her. He burnt his house down with himself and the children inside, and locked Ms. Hall out. “When she pleads for police to be sent to the home [moments before the house catching fire], the 911 dispatcher says officers only get sent to life threatening situations” (Keneally & Stebner, 2012). Ms. Hall was invested in these children and knew something was wrong when the father locked her out of the home, but she does not have a badge, or the authority to break down doors. Nor does she have the ability to protect herself with fireproof turn out (bunker coat and pants) or a gun.

She has a clipboard and a pen, and now is “suffering from grave emotional trauma” as she watched two boys that she was assigned to protect, be burnt to death in the arms of their “crazed father.”

All first responders suffer from a variety of effects that are “...a known problem; the high rates of Post Traumatic Stress, heart attack, suicide and other stress-based issues...” (YFFR, 2019). In 2008, suicides took a turn for the worse and began to increase among all protective service workers. The Division of Safety Research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health stated that “occupation can largely define a person's identity, and psychological risk factors for suicide, such as depression and stress, can be affected by the workplace” (Krisberg, 2015). Like many other first responders, child welfare workers are given limited resources: peer to peer counseling, hotlines, and powerpoints that say “self-care” all over them without explanation. However, with the constant state

of crisis and trauma these workers live in, having time to eat without doing something work related is barely a possibility. Ultimately, the majority of child welfare first responders experience symptoms of fatigue, burnout, and emotional, psychological, mental, and physical exhaustion. But does it end at the symptoms? Doreen Kane is an example of the overall psychological injury and exhaustion that went too far. Working in Paramus, New Jersey as a caseworker supervisor, she shot herself within her office, taking her own life (Eustachewich, 2018).

Constantly getting beaten with a tsunami of trauma, exhaustion, and lack of support, child welfare workers are stuck in a riptide and are not even given the opportunity to tread water. “According to Erika Tullberg in her webinar called Building Resilience Among Child Welfare Staff one of the first symptoms of secondary trauma is a loss of perspective and critical thinking skills” (Martin, 2011). In other words, the people the world is putting in charge of caring and protecting the vulnerable children, are unable to utilize necessary skills to keep them safe in the first place. “It’s like living in LA and forgetting that the air is filled with smog” (Martin, 2011). The child welfare workers are being pushed to the point of responding to the everyday stress of the job with a “defeat response”. This is defined as “nature’s way of removing you from the picture so you don’t use up communal resources” (McGonigal, 2016). This response promotes social isolation, depression, and suicide. It is the same way burned out EMTs, firefighters, law enforcement officers, and other firsts responders respond without the proper tools. “They shut down the part that sees pain, suffering, and death, to protect themselves from seeing too much” (McGonigal, 2016).

The burnt out first responders respond to humans as objects and procedures rather than human beings and children.

Many child welfare agencies are aware of the epidemic. There is a push to focus on timeliness and not quality, a push to not ask questions and just get it done before its past a policy deadline, a push to make recommendations that affect lives of children, but be quiet when the court over rules those recommendations, a push to clean up their colleagues messes and still manage their own, and a push to put all personal problems aside to focus on their job around the clock (Martin, 2011). Almost all child welfare worker positions are on-call, and they work holidays, weekends, and even at 2am when the rest of the world is sleeping. Child welfare workers become trained in putting out the biggest fire, and only oiling the squeaky wheel. They become numb, lacking purpose or direction (Kolk, 2015). If they have reached the point of burnout already, and are responding in a “defeat response,” the child welfare first responders have thus created a psychological shield to defend against stress, which can interfere with the ability to find purpose and satisfaction (McGonigal, 2016). They are rarely given the opportunity to feel the positive effects of their work, let alone take time and recognize the importance of practicing self care, or calling a peer. They are overworked so much that they “hope ‘no news is good news’ from their other crisis cases - until there is bad news, which may then be too late” (Corrigan & Foltz, 2017).

With this lack of opportunity to thrive, the child welfare first responders begin to wither. This withering is contagious, like the plague, and impacts the children and families the workers are responsible for. It has been noticed that the child welfare workers who have a “burnt out practice” have incomplete investigations, miss critical information to determine if a child is safe in a home, become disengaged, and are likely to make inaccurate decisions - leaving children in unsafe situations (Martin, 2011). When it comes to finding a solution to help the family rebuild, child welfare workers create ‘copy and paste’ case plans, which are goals for the parents to get their children back, to save time. These case plans and management style may not actually pertain to the family specifically, and therefore are less likely to realistically help. Finally, child welfare workers who are running on empty, are less likely to find relatives and nonrelatives to take the children and keep them in their original school. Thus, traumatizing the child a second and third time by removing them from the familiarity of their everyday lives and putting them into the foster care system, which is already overflowing and past capacity.

Why is all of this important? “Hurt people hurt other people” (Kolk, 2015).

In the most layman of terms; law enforcement enforces the law, emergency medical services (EMS) provide emergency medical services, and firefighters fight fires. Child welfare workers are responsible for the child’s welfare, including the child’s safety, permanency (permanent family-based living situations), and wellbeing. The child welfare first responders are responsible for the child’s life. Four year old Riyla Wilson disappeared from the house while under the supervision of the

state child-welfare agency (Canedy, 2003). She was later presumed dead and her killer charged with murder by confession. Two year old Jordan Belliveu was found murdered by his mother. After the Sheriff’s Office stated the child protective investigators ``failed to identify the active danger threats occurring within the household that were significant, immediate, and clearly observable”. Florida State Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell stated “policies were not followed, communication throughout the process was poor, and several clear warning signs were missed” (O’Donnell, 2019). An unnamed 11 year old was reported dead after commiting suicide while in CPS’s care, as recent as last year (Walser, 2019).

So many young lives are gone, but it is not to say that the exhaustion, trauma, and burnout of child welfare workers were the only factor in these childrens’ deaths. For the purpose of clarification, there are many hands in the figurative pot. Four year old Noah Cuatro, a child of the Los Angeles child welfare system, died in the home of his unsafe biological parents after the child welfare workers objected to him being returned. Despite the workers efforts to get him re-removed, it was too late (Stiles, 2019). No matter the outcome, each story has its own unfortunate ending. Each tragic story not only changed a family’s life forever, but is another weight on the chest of a child welfare first responder. That is the job. That is a child welfare first responder: care for those who cannot care for themselves, and take on the weight of everyone else’s adversity. No matter how many hardships are witnessed or heard of, no matter how many abused and neglected children are seen, and no matter how many stories have untold endings, CPS is expected to keep moving forward and continuously perform at 110% without adaptations or strides in how the child welfare system functions.

“From Awareness to Action” was the motto at the 2019 Safety and Health Conference for the Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association (FFCA, 2019). To translate, the FFCA took ‘do not bring up problems without solutions’ to heart and began to find firefighters solutions. Child welfare first responders need solutions. Take time to Google search “child protection services safety and health conference 2019”.

Go ahead. Stop reading.