'Failure to Protect:
The Caseworker Files'
With Barak Goodman
Friday, Jan. 31, 2003; 11 a.m. ET
Each year, some 200,000 children are removed from their homes following allegations of abuse or neglect. Yet the process for deciding if and when to remove a child from his or her parents is often shrouded in secrecy.
FRONTLINE's "Failure to Protect: The Caseworker Files," airing Thursday, Feb. 6, at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), continues its examination of Maine's Department of Human Services (DHS) with a look at the day-to-day workings of a system the public rarely sees -- a small set of caseworkers interacting with families and each other, dealing with the excruciating dilemmas and heartbreaking choices that confront them every day. Who decides when a child should be removed? When should parents lose the right to raise their own child? And how much damage might we do to children in the name of helping them?
Producer Barak Goodman was online on Friday, Feb. 7, to talk about the show, a companion presentation to FRONTLINE's "Failure to Protect: The Taking of Logan Marr."
Goodman and his wife, Rachel Dretzin, co-own 10/20 Productions. She was online on Jan. 31 to talk about "Failure to Protect: The Taking of Logan Marr." Together, they produced the Peabody award-winning FRONTLINE documentary "The Lost Children of Rockdale County," (1999), about teenagers in an affluent Atlanta suburb, and the loneliness and disconnection that led to a syphilis outbreak. In 2001, they produced "The Merchants of Cool," also for FRONTLINE, about the American marketing machine and its focus on teenage consumers. Independently, Barak Goodman produced and directed the Academy-award nominated and Emmy award-winning documentary "Scottsboro: An American Tragedy" for PBS's American Experience series, as well as the Emmy-nominated "Daley: the Last Boss," also for American Experience, and also co-produced "Rollover: The Hidden History of the SUV" for FRONTLINE. Dretzin has produced numerous documentaries for FRONTLINE, including "Hillary's Class," "The Search for Satan," "Betting on the Market," and "The High Price of Health."
The transcript follows.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: Thank you for joining us this morning, Barak. Can you explain how you were given access to follow the Maine DHS so closely? And, have you heard any reaction from Maine DHS about last night's broadcast?
Barak Goodman: In the midst of doing the first show in the series about Logan Marr, Maine DHS acceded to a longstanding request to see how caseworkers operate. We think they recognized that they felt they couldn't comment on Logan Marr at all and this would be a way for them to respond, in a sense. I think they trusted us and I think it was the right decision on our part. It's a much more nuanced picture of caseworkers.
I haven't heard anything from them yet.
Bronx, N.Y.: During the panel discussion, people talked about all the services they would want to give the hypothetical mother before taking the children from the home, but in the documentary, the real families seemed to get very little help before the children were taken. Which is closer to what really happens?
Barak Goodman: It varies from locale to locale. Much depends on case loads and individual case workers. Generally, there's a basic menu of services -- counseling, parenting classes. But as the Congressman said last night, the question most often for these families is how do they get to these services when they're trying to work and this is what we saw again and again.
North Brentwood, Md.: We are asking very young inexperienced people to make decisions in a crisis. And we are getting only young and inexperienced people because they are paid so badly. And they are paid badly because people do not see any connection between paying taxes and getting services. We are all anxious to lower our taxes, and we vote for politicians that promise to keep our taxes down. Meanwhile every state service including social work and education is starved for resources and compelled to hire the cheapest labor they can get.
Barak Goodman: No question about it. I think that I can't think of another more important decision that is made by less experienced people with less supervision. These people are all well meaning, but they lack the support to make decisions of this magnitude.
Kent, Wash.: Why do we feel the need as a society to judge low-or-no-income parents who can't afford to give a child everything so they deserve? Why is it necessary to remove a child from a home not perfect? Neglect can be a measure of perception, abuse is something all together different. Would money have played a part in Logan Marr's story?
Barak Goodman: I believe so. I think that, as one panelist said last night, these things don't happen to people with money. They can fend off inquiries. It's a consistent problem that neglect and poverty are mixed up. It's a very fine line. There's no question that there's a double standard at work. People who are poor attract these agencies far more often.
Redwood City, Calif.: I am shocked that the prized American system of checks and balances, and the notion of "innocent until proven guilty" does not apply to child protective services. How can this organization be above the law and not have to prove guilt before removing a child from his home?
Barak Goodman: That's a great question and something that struck us from the very beginning. There are some checks and balances. An agency must present its case in court and parents are represented. But those cases are not before juries and the counsel for the parents are usually unqualified to do this work. In general, because of the confidentiality issues surrounding children, these agencies operate almost completely without outside scrutiny -- it's only when a sensational case happens. Reform in them is entirely up to the people who run them and you see a lot of experimentation of trying and failing to reform. I think if these agencies were opened up, we'd get a much better performance from them.
Auburn, Maine: The one positive thing I can say about Maine DHS is they now have an independent agency (Community Concepts) that they refer cases to, cases that they think need investigation but not immediate interference. The independent agency contacts the biological parents and lets them know there was a complaint made, what the complaint was and asks to work with the family. They do not force the family to let them work with you but they offer services. They offer you support services and refer you for help. They come into the home once a week and talk with the parents and observe the children with the parents.
I think it is wonderful and at the same time I think it lets DHS know more about a family. In my opinion a family that is willing to take the help shows that their family is in less risk then a family that refuses. Why don't more states have programs like this to offer the families the help they need before it gets to the point where the children need to be removed from the home? I think if more states offered services like this to families then there would be a lot fewer children in the foster care system.
Barak Goodman: That's one of the reforms you see all across the country. There are more and more agencies farming out social work to private concerns and reserving for itself only the most extreme cases and ones that need immediate action. I think this is one of the best signs of reform out there.
The dilemma becomes what happens when one of these private agencies makes a mistake. Then the state is accused of dropping the ball, then they beat a hasty retreat from the reforms they've made. BUt they need to stick with it.
Plattsburgh, N.Y.: Have you heard anything about the families shown on "Failure to Protect" since the show aired?
Barak Goodman: Yes, we did an update at the end of the broadcast. We know that Shirley is doing better and has come to grips with the sexual abuse her daughter suffered. We think she's gonna be just fine.
Beth, the mother of 2-year-old Mark, has had another baby and will probably never get Mark back.
Keith and Matthew may well be reconciled. Keith is doing better and Matthew, who has also stabilized -- they visit each other and are on a path towards reunification.
Arlington, Va.: The show mentioned how in the past decade, Maine decided it was better to break up the family than protect the child. Do you have any knowledge on how other states handle abuse cases? Do other states take the view that the child's welfare is more important than keeping the family intact?
Barak Goodman: It's been a national trend over the last decade that the safety of the child comes first and family unity secondary. There are exceptions, but that's the general trend. And while that's a laudable goal, some of the policies may be pushing children into adoptive families without giving birth parents a real chance to get their kids back. Some people think that children are being scarred by this, but the contrary argument of course, is that a decade ago when the opposite was true, kids would languish in foster care while parents didn't reform themselves. So it's a very tough decision. So we have to look for permanence for children aggressively, but with restraint.
Auburn, Maine: Last night while showing the case workers getting ready to remove children from homes the contacted the parents before they went in and took the children. Did they do that only because they knew you were filming? I ask this question because 10 years ago DHS took my son from me the same office that removed Logan from her home, and I was never contacted. They never talked to me or anything just came with the order. I did however get my son back in two weeks time and have never had to deal with them again. But I want to know was DHS really being sincere about how they work or were they sugar coating it because they were being filmed?
Barak Goodman: That's a good question. We never felt like they were changing anything they were doing, but we can't peer into their heads and know that for sure. Especially, with Shaylee, that she was doing anything for our benefit. It is DHS policy to contact the parent. The exception is PPO -- an emergency removal. In those cases, they will come without warning. I don't know if that was your case.
Pittsburgh, Pa.: I was mesmerized by your two-night series. Do you think elimination of confidentiality laws would reform human services departments by making them more open to public scrutiny? Is there any chance those laws will be challenged?
Barak Goodman: Good question. I've never heard of any formal attempt to challenge. THere is of course a basis for the confidentiality laws. Children who are innocent victims do deserve some protection from public disclosure of what's happened. I think too many agencies are hiding behind these laws and I do think that it is a basic truth that when government bureaucracy is unchecked, unchallenged, it tends to veer off course, so I agree completely that some sort of outside -- maybe by allowing public into the court hearings -- would reform the system.
The problem here isn't that case workers and supervisors are lazy or badly motivated. The problem is that they lapse into routine and they tend to view all cases by a certain playbook and they tend to lack flexibility and common sense gets thrown out the window. But if they had people watching them, that would be diminished.
Gibsonia, Pa.: Do you have any idea whether the number of kids in "impermanent" situations is rising or falling?
Barak Goodman: As a result of the 1997 federal legislation, the number of kids in impermanency has leveled off and is declining and the number of adoptions is rising, but what's interesting -- I don't think the number of reunifications with biological families is rising as fast. This is evidence that kids are being pushed into adoption more aggressively and that's what bothers them so much.
Maine: I am a former DHS caseworker of three years and the caseloads are so high, that it is impossible to do the job well. The reason there are young workers is the burn out rate is so high, the average caseworker last about two years and at this point they have learned all of job and have realized they will never be caught up. The state needs to have more caseworkers and lighter caseloads. This way maybe we would have more experienced workers.
Barak Goodman: We've heard that complaint a million times. In Maine, the caseloads are significantly smaller than most other places. In New Jersey recently, it was revealed that the caseloads were upwards of 80 children per caseworker. As George Biller said last night, "What are these, gods here?" They can't possibly do their jobs under that kind of pressure.
Alexandria, Va.: Interesting cross-referencing question here...
Having seen the show last night on Michael Jackson and the questions raised about his judgement as a parent (and his handling of his infant son), would his children's welfare be in question to the point that they might be taken?
Barak Goodman: I had the exact same thought. I doubt it. I think that Michael Jackson is a case to himself and may well get scrutiny right now. But now, agencies almost never deal with anyone who isn't poor. So, neglect can take a lot of forms -- it's not just about dirty faces and dirty clothes. It can take many other guises.
Tulsa, Okla.: What is going on in CPS/DHS is criminal. And it not just about poverty, as a lot of people seem to think. Birth parents have no rights. The child's best interests are NOT served. I would like to know what resources, besides hiring an attorney, parents can turn to? As a Kinship parent, I am bound by a blackmailed confidentiality agreement. If I break that agreement, they will take the child. It is the "system" at its worst, and they are destroying our most precious asset, the children.
Barak Goodman: There are groups out there who are advocates for birth parents and they're easy to find on the Web. I do think it's one of the more obvious excesses of the system that parents are sometimes, in essence, blackmailed. We saw it in the Logan Marr story, where out of good intentions, they forbade Christy from seeing her mother. THis is the height of insensitivity. The only person she had in the world was her mother. For the agency to separate them was just the opposite of common sense. So I empathize with you.
Somewhere, USA: Did the Maine DHS case workers ever mention threats made to them from parents for taking children out of the home?
Barak Goodman: Yes, we had several conversations with caseworkers about the very real danger inherent in this job. Where these caseworkers are sometimes dealing with very violent people and are essentially going in unarmed into situations where anything can happen and this is another one of the stresses of the job. This gets to a very important point, which is that these case workers, are asked to behave like investigators or cops and that contradiction is one of the worst problems in the system.
South Windsor, Conn.: I am a foster parent in Connecticut. This program was informative and disturbing. I am frustrated by the fact that birth parents appear to have rights that far outweigh any for the child. I have provided a home for a year and a half to this child that I got when she was 9 months old. I was her fourth placement in one month. She has bonded with me and is secure and happy. The birth mom is now taking parenting classes and the state is pro-mom. This child appears to be viewed as property, although she does have a lawyer that is fighting for her, but it may not be enough. I feel that laws need to be changed so children are afforded more respect and their needs met, especially on a developmental basis. Do states have different laws? How are state services protocols set? In Connecticut we have a fatality review board that investigates the death of children. Never have a seen charges brought against a system, or people in a system. Why is this?
Barak Goodman: To start with -- this is an interesting perspective because it very often happens that very young children form very close bonds with foster parents. But those that are advocates for birth parents argue that that's no reason birth parents should lose their right to parent. On the other hand, the system in general has been favoring placing young children permanently into adoptive homes just because they have become more aware of the cognitive needs of children.
So, although I appreciate your perspective, the general national trend is in favor of moving kids more quickly into adoptive homes and not respecting birth parents' rights.
Yes, state laws vary. Policies vary enormously. You can be a mother in Florida and lose your child, but would've kept it in Maine. As far as punishing, there are often consequences when children die for -- and they generally seem to fall on the caseworkers -- which is probably unfair since there is a chain of decision makers.
Maine: A lot of times DHS chooses to get a PPO to take kids out of their homes based on a person calling in a complaint that seems so bad they feel the child needs to be immediately removed from the home. But like Shirley said, "I could say you beat my kids, but does that make it true?" I think that is a good point. What about people that call in these really bad need to take immediate action bogus complaints? What happens to those children when false complaints are made and they are yanked from their parents homes?
Barak Goodman: In our experience, the agency would never do a PPO just solely based on a phone call. A phone call prompts an investigation and that may or may not lead to substantiation. If it does, then the caseworker needs to go to a judge to get a PPO, so it's a somewhat involved process to remove a child right away.
But I completely agree that the system doesn't discriminate well enough between malicious calls and real ones. They react to both basically the same way and that is to investigate, to talk to neighbors, to talk to relatives. There needs to be a better screening process from the very beginning.
It's usually possible to tell the difference very quickly, without a lot of intrusive investigation.
Somewhere, USA: When we read about some poor child being tortured, starved, killed by dysfunctional parents or equally dysfunctional caretakers, the immediate outcry is why wasn't that child taken away? Taken away to where? If the social worker takes a child, she can't stash the child in her office like a misplaced file. There has to be a person to take them in, a safe home to be in. The next time we cry out, we ought to consider why we aren't one of those safe places.
Barak Goodman: All I can say is Amen. That hits the nail on the head.
If we as a society are really concerned about children then we can't just be satisfied with removing them from dangerous situations. We have to care for them once they've been removed. There are not enough foster parents and not enough parents willing to adopt these kids.
Kent, Wash.: How about instead of foster homes for families like Christy Marr's, you put the family into temporary supervised shelter. Imagine the time and money saved. Quicker and better results. Happy children. No loss of life.
Barak Goodman: That's a reform that's been called for for a long time and there has been experimentation with that. It can be expensive and sometimes fails, but Dorothy Roberts said last night, that if all the billions of dollars we spend on foster care were instead spent on early and aggressive intervention to help families, we might never see these kids in the system.
In the case of Logan Marr and Christy Marr, it's pretty clear to us that all Christy needed was a little bit of help. She was a 19 year old single mother. And if she'd had that help instead of judgment and investigation, the whole tragedy might have been averted.
Christy is now a solid married woman raising her younger daughter and, from what we can tell, has completely matured.
Orlando, Fla.: Mr. Goodman,
What about the "good" that comes from the system? We are foster parents and therefore are, from first-hand experience, quite cognizant of the short-comings and failures. But, what about the good? Children's lives are being saved every day from the most horrible of conditions. The typical media rendition is always of the bad, especially the sensationally tragic. Inside the system, we also see kids brought out of the pit of hell created by their ill and ill-equipped parents. What about them?
Barak Goodman: No one is saying that we should throw the system away or that there aren't wonderful people doing work in the system. We made that point several times last night, but it's pretty clear that these agencies are broken. We hear convincing stories from all over the country of caseworkers overwhelmed and forced to make judgments without really knowing the facts or having the time and support to make wise decisions. And that's what we were trying to point out.
Mt. Pleasant, Mich.: What can the average everyday American do to help in this fight to save families?
Mine has been separated by Social Services also. My children are older though and I raised them to be strong and wise; they will survive this. I would like to join along with my sons in this fight to save "The Family"!
Barak Goodman: I think these agencies have historically been somewhat immune from public pressure, because they're not staffed by anyone who is elected or even accountable. But the politicians who appoint the people are accountable. And if they don't do anything to fix this system, then people who care ought to change the politicians.
The other thing people can do, is to become foster parents themselves. Either permanent or very temporary parents. There's nothing more important to make the system work than good placements for kids who have been removed. At best, they will be short and the kids will go back. At worst, they'll find love and care in a new place.
California: How can we attract quality, capable adults to act as foster and adoptive parents for children who must be removed from their homes? In general, the system does not seem to value their input and the retention rates are very low.
Barak Goodman: Well, being a foster parent is somewhat like being a teacher in an inner city school. It's supposed to be about caring for children, but the children are often so damaged that it becomes much more about keeping order and not becoming dragged under by bad behavior.
If foster parents also were given more support by the government -- which is all of use -- we might see more and better foster parents. The good foster parents I've had the chance to meet are among the most heroic people I've seen. They get no credit and no support.
For the most part, foster parents are altruistic. They see a need, they love children and they're filling that need. Once in a while, you see foster parents who do it because it helps them pay the mortgage and they run their homes like reform schools, but I think the common thread is the love of children and a desire to keep them safe.
Saint Louis, Mo.: I don't have a question, but a long comment. I grew in the system. I was taken from my mother at the age of 13 months to the age of 17. Back in 1970 it was called long-term foster care. I was placed in a good family from age 14 months to four, no contact from mother. There was a possible adoption, but mother showed up.
It was all down hill from there. I was soon to start my life deep in the system. I was placed in 11 foster homes, three group homes and two hospitals for depression. I was able at the age of 12 to tell the judge what I wanted, I wanted a family. But by then it was impossible to find one at age 12. So they all felt that it was in my BEST INTEREST for LONG term care. I was physically, emotionally and sexually in these homes. That is in no one's best interest. I had so many caseworkers, they lost me in the system. My mother even signed the papers relinquishing her rights, but they lost those. She changed her mind. She did not even try to get me back.
I am 33 now with my own family -- two children 4 and 7. I love them so much. I am a good mother. If my life would have been different, maybe if I had been adopted or in one family, I would have a even closer bond with my children. I only wish I could do something to help the children that are in the system today. The system has not changed in 32 years. There are children lost ,misplaced, dying, taken from parents that love them, they just need help. The real questions are: What is in the child's best interests, and where do we go from here to change this system? I want to be able to help so much, but I don't have years of college or degrees -- all I have is a lot of firsthand experience, as do many many others. Maybe we are the ones that should help or run the system. One day in the system can affect a child for along time. I do hope you get this.
Barak Goodman: Thank you for that story. This is a classic story we hear over again. It's the almost identical story that one of our panelist had. No one on either side of the argument would ever disagree that longterm foster care and repeated placements are the worst thing to happen. Abuse is almost inevitable. It's amazing that this woman has managed to escape, obviously, intact.
It's true that the 1997 federal law did try to deal with repeated placements. Some would argue progress is being made.
Rose Garland last night also said that the children themselves are the last to be heard from and I do agree that as part of opening up these agencies to the outside world, current and ex foster children should have a voice in how these agencies operate.
Minneapolis, Minn.: You almost succeeded in bringing truth to people. But then after creating the show re: Logan Marr, you sat back and suggested that throwing more money at child protection agencies is what we need to do? You are looking at this from a vantage point of wealth and privilege. You are suggesting that wealth and privilege make better families. You are telling us that Logan's mother wasn't good enough because she wasn't wealthy and educated enough. You and people like you have created this hideous system that funds the removal of children from loving parents because they aren't stylish and well-spoken and privileged like you. You support child protection as it exists even though you have seen firsthand what happens to children when they are taken from loving parents. What is wrong with your mind? Why can't you think outside of the box? Why not admit that there is something horribly wrong with the system and no amount of money is going to correct the problem? Perhaps for your next show you would like to go out and talk to the millions who have lost their children without evidence of abuse, without fair legal representation, without fair trials. Why don't you stop the empty rhetoric and use your power and privilege to do something useful to truly help families, instead of supporting social services which has become nothing less than the new S.S.?
Barak Goodman: First of all, that's not what we said last night or the week before. Our goal in the second program was not to take out after these agencies, which are in fact saving children on a practically daily basis. It was, however, to highlight the problems you point out. When caseworkers can't distinguish between fundamentally good and fundamentally dangerous parents or between people who are just poor and people who never should have been parents. Then we see mistakes happen.
The question is how to improve the system. Not whether to have a system at all. And what we were trying to do in the program last night is show the complexities and the greys and find the specific points where the system doesn't work, not to take broad swipes that aren't very useful.
Maine: Does anyone know how they find these people to take the children in when they are removed from their homes? How are these people screened? It seems as thought the parents with whom are getting their children taken away are investigated more then the people who will be taking these children into their homes.
Barak Goodman: That's very true. Prospective foster and adoptive parents are screened and must take some basic training courses. But in general, they are certainly not scrutinized like the birth parents. Obviously in the case of Sally Schofield, there were assumptions made based on her class and education that turned out to be tragically wrong.
From what we hear about the experience of many children in foster care, there needs to be a huge amount more of scrutiny.
© Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company