When children are abused at home, social workers like Sally Hoover and Liz Siebenaler step in to protect those kids. So it bothers them – a lot – when they’re instead labeled “baby snatchers.”
“We don’t want to break up families,” Hoover says. “That is the absolute last thing we want. It’s very traumatic. It’s sad. That’s not why we’re in the business. We just want the parents to parent, and we just want children to grow up and be healthy.”
Hoover is an investigator in Hennepin County. Intake workers first screen reports of suspected abuse or neglect. Statewide, about 30 percent of reports are passed on for further investigation.
A report could come from police, neighbors, or other family members. Most come from schools. State law requires teachers, child-care providers, doctors, nurses, and other professionals to call if they suspect abuse or neglect.
What investigators like Hoover do next depends on how serious the situation seems to be. They’re never sure what they’re walking into.
“You have to manage your own emotions,” Hoover says. “I have to walk in and be able to interview that parent, treat them with respect, and not judge, so I can get the truth.
“But the reality is, sometimes you’d like to just reach out and choke them. You come in and you find out this child has been horribly abused. And when you talk to the parent, they’re adamant that they have the right to do it. Or they just outright lie to you, and it’s like, ‘Wow!’
“You know it’s going to be a battle to get them to change their thoughts about what is right.”
Digging into the real issues
While police decide whether to file criminal charges, Hoover must decide whether to pursue a deeper investigation that could lead to a judge removing the child from the home, or ordering the family to work with a case manager.
Her contact with a family might last only a few hours, but along the way, she might consult with other relatives, teachers, school social workers, a guardian ad litem, probation officers, and medical personnel who specialize in child abuse.
Siebenaler gets nearly all her cases as a result of that kind of court order. She is an “ongoing” child protection worker, or case manager, in St. Louis County.
“There are times where parents are very defensive and very anxious and skeptical and untrusting of having social workers in their lives,” she says. “ And there’s other times where it’s exactly the opposite.”
Case managers like Siebenaler are involved with families for at least six months, sometimes for years. Her goal is to correct the issues that got a family into the system in the first place. “Issues can vary,” she says. “Drug abuse, mental health, housing, cuts in support programs, or just neglect. Neglect is huge.”
Working to build trust
Case managers work with a judge, family members, and others to develop and carry out a plan so the family gets the support and resources necessary to turn things around.
“Even if the children are removed from the home because of a safety issue, our number one plan is to get them back to the home,” Siebenaler says.
Siebenaler visits families at least once a month. Building trust is vital for success, she says. “Typically, when Social Services gets involved, it’s not because it’s been sought out. A lot of it depends on how I, as an individual, approach it.
“I need to be respectful. It’s always good to be a real person with families – that I’m not the social worker that’s all-knowing, like I know everything about your family. Because I don’t know. I don’t know the ins and outs.”
Often, she says, families are doing their best, but are up against it. “You just need to be able to respect people, and understand that you’re going to listen when they talk, and not make assumptions, have empathy for their situation, identify the good stuff that’s happening, and build on that. It’s a strengths-based approach.”
Helping families turn it around
Typically, Siebenaler helps the family realize what’s going well, what isn’t, and what can change. “Some people need a little bit more time to have that insight, to ultimately see what we’re seeing. We talk about safety, permanency, and well-being a lot.” She’ll help build a support network of other relatives, friends, community agencies, and public assistance as necessary.
Helping a family turn itself around is the focus of most of Hoover’s encounters, too. Most times, instead of a full-fledged investigation, she is able to simply conduct a “family assessment.”
Like Siebenaler, Hoover talks with the parents and children, finds out what’s going on, discusses the allegations, and figures out what needs to happen so the problem doesn’t happen again.
Though investigators and case managers work opposite ends of the timeline, their primary mission is identical: keeping children safe.
A big distinction, however, is that keeping a child safe is not always the same – legally – as what’s in the child’s “best interest,” Hoover says. “Best interest is a little fuzzy, isn’t it? But safety is based on the law. There are certain things parents can do, and certain things they can’t do.”
Legal limits – and gray areas
“Best interest” ultimately is up to judges, guardians ad litem, and others to debate. Child protection workers assess simply whether a child will be safe in his or her own home. If not, investigators can recommend removing the child – first for 72 hours, longer if necessary.
But whether child protection workers are looking out for newborns or high school seniors, they walk a fine line so they don’t become an example of “the government” dictating how parents must raise their kids.
Physical discipline is a prime example, Hoover says. “Legally, parents can use physical discipline. It’s not my place to tell them yay or nay. It is my place to say, ‘If you do use physical discipline, and you cross a certain line, it’s against the law.’ And that’s how I get involved.”
Most assessments that investigators conduct don’t require bringing in a case manager. Neglect is far more common than abuse, Hoover says, and talking with the family often reveals that job demands and the financial strains of low-wage work are at the root of the problem.
“You ensure that the child is safe, but I look at it this way,” Hoover says. “It’s a way to educate parents, to say, ‘OK, you went to work and you left your 8-year-old home alone for more than four hours. Legally, you can’t do that and here’s why.’ And now maybe I can troubleshoot and find some options.”
Putting the right resources in place
What the family may need is a referral for affordable after-school care, or for food support, or to a community agency that works specifically with families in their situation. Usually, Hoover says, the family already is aware of the problem and is willing – even determined – to work on it.
“When you can help a parent, especially young parents, make a change, you feel better when you walk out,” Hoover says. “I know I’m not going to see that family again, because they really didn’t want to be in this situation, and they listened and took it on and said, ‘I’m going to change this, because you’re right, this is a better way to do it’.”