My column today is about my correspondence and phone interview with Richard Wexler, a great guy who's head of the National Coalition to Change Child-Welfare Reform. He e-mailed me after my last column ran, to say I was full of crap to suggest that we each keep DHS on speed-dial to report child abuse if we suspect it's taking place.
He shared alarming and surprising information about how child-welfare agencies panic when horrific child-abuse cases make headlines. As a result, they place kids more quickly into foster care, without considering whether foster care is the best option for a child. The scary thing is that, studies show, the vast majority of maltreated kids fare better in their own homes than do maltreated kids who go into placement.
Anyway, once I filed my column yesterday, Wexler e-mailed me some additional thoughts about child-welfare agencies and social workers - and a theory about how a beartbreaking case like Charlenni Ferreira's might've managed to persist, through no fault of DHS or any other concered onlookers. He'd just read an Inquirer story about how Charlenni's family had become so good at hiding her abuse. DHS became so convinced the Ferreira familly was being harrased by the school nurse who contacted DHS about them, an agency worker suggested the family get legal advice about how to fight the unfairness of it all.
"The attitude test" - he calls it.
"What [the Inquirer story] suggests to me," he writes, "is that this case was very different from Danieal Kelly or many of the others. When [DHS commissioner ] Anne Marie Ambrose says (without hindsight, of course) that there was nothing DHS could have done differently – she may be right.
"What we may have here is simply parents who were extremely good at conning professionals. They may have known how to tell them exactly what they wanted to hear, how to claim innocence with a tone of sorrow instead of anger, and most important, they promised to cooperate with the various providers.
"In contrast, the parent who gets angry and says, “I’m innocent, dammit!” because she is, in fact, innocent, may lose her child forever. A lawyer I interviewed for my book called it “flunking the attitude test.” In this case, it may be the nurse [at Clara Barton Elementary School] who flunked. She may have vented her entirely understandable frustration at not being listened to in a way that offended caseworkers and the therapist - and therefore been labeled a troublemaker. (After all, it can take extraordinary wisdom to forgive the tone of someone’s communication and decide it’s worth considering the substance anyway – right?)
"And it wasn’t just DHS that was fooled. I don’t know that this has ever been studied, but in my 33 years of following this issue I’ve noticed that there seems to be a hierarchy of credibility for child protective-services workers. At the very top are doctors, followed by therapists. Nurses are probably third – but in this case the nurse was up against a doctor, a therapist and, eventually, a second doctor. After nurses, probably, come other “mandated reporters," especially teachers, then other possible witnesses, then foster parents, if any, and – dead last, unless they’ve really mastered the right attitude - birth parents.
"A similar problem is something I have come to call 'fatal neatness.' I’ve never encountered a profession more prone to equate cleanliness with godliness than child protective services. Over and over, in news accounts and documents, I’ve read caseworkers and their bosses explain that they never suspected anything because “the home was so neat and clean.” Conversely, a dirty home may not automatically cost a poor person her or his child (although sometimes it does), but it’s going to count heavily against them. The New Jersey Office of Child Advocate has warned caseworkes about this.
"If I understand your point correctly [I'd argued, in a phone conservation, that if neighbors of Charlenni's had called DHS, the agency might've realized the school nurse wasn't alone in her concern], you’re saying that if only some of the neighbors also had called in reports, that might have raised the level of suspicion enough to overcome the parents’ apparent skill at deception.
"Maybe. But as part of any child-abuse investigation, DHS workers are supposed to contact neighbors and other potential witnesses. So they should have been reached, in any event. If that never happened, that may be because the DHS workers simply had too many other cases which, on the surface, looked worse – so they may have taken a shortcut and accepted the doctor’s word as definitive.
"That would support my argument that DHS failures, in cases like this, usually are caused by workers too busy to investigate properly – and part of what makes them too busy is people calling in reports based on their 'feeling' that something is wrong."