For the Sake of the Children
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Ann Ochs, a small woman with a soft voice and a quiet, prepossessing manner, doesn't come across as anybody's authority figure.
Yet when she appears at the doorstep of a home in Fairfax County, she comes vested with perhaps the most far-reaching power a local government can exert: to remove a child from a family.
Ochs has spent 11 years as a social worker in the after-hours unit of Child Protective Services, the county agency that investigates allegations of child abuse, neglect and exploitation. She always counsels newly minted caseworkers to remember what is at stake when they enter a home.
"Within a matter of minutes, you can change a whole family's life," said Ochs, 43, a Langley High School and Radford University graduate.
Ochs has not hesitated to trigger those changes when she thinks a child's safety is at risk. Her work takes her into the bleakest corners of domestic life in the county, a world of babies shaken and beaten to death, of children battered and broken but too young to describe what happened, of those malnourished, ill-clothed or effectively abandoned by drug-addicted or clinically depressed parents.
Her agency, part of the county's Department of Family Services, follows an average of 2,300 complaints a year that come in from school administrators, mental health counselors, emergency room doctors, police, neighbors and relatives. Some come to naught, the product of misunderstandings or miscommunication. Others lead to parents entering psychiatric counseling or treatment programs for alcohol or drug abuse.
In any given month, an average of 200 Fairfax families are under court-ordered monitoring because of serious child abuse, neglect or sexual abuse. In the most severe cases, sanctions can include removing children to foster care, criminal prosecution or termination of parental rights by the courts.
The nightmare cases, the ones that generate newspaper and television stories, can seem beyond comprehension: In July 2005, Channoah Green left her 4-year-old son alone by the side of the Capital Beltway near Falls Church. The boy told authorities that Green had pushed him from the car for misbehaving, then bumped him as she pulled away and he tried to get back in. Green was found not guilty by reason of insanity. County officials placed the boy in foster care.
One of the most wrenching recent cases unfolded in September, when a Fairfax County woman who operated a day-care center out of her Kingstowne-area apartment left four children with her husband while she ran an errand. She returned 40 minutes later, to find her husband gone and 21-month-old Myles Simon dying from what the medical examiner later described as blunt force trauma to the head.
Three days later, police arrested Mohammad Ahmad, 24, and charged him with murder. Myle's 4-year-old sister, Sydney, told investigators, "Myles got a spanking."
Ochs, one of a handful of protective services workers specializing in child fatalities, won't discuss the specifics of cases, to protect her clients' privacy. She said such episodes are devastating, not just because a child is dead but because of the trauma left behind, for siblings and for parents betrayed in the most savage way by a caretaker.
Dealing with such cases is difficult on many levels. "It's really heart-wrenching to do your job and also respect someone's grieving process," she said.