Editor’s note: Social Services Director Elliot Smart is responding to a My Turn written by staff writer Maggie Wells that was published in our Oct. 11 edition.
When a member of the public offers an opinion piece, as this newspaper so generously offers the opportunity to do, we sometimes might have to accept that the facts that public person relied on to form their opinion could be wrong. That is just part of the public dialogue.
But newspaper reporters can and should be held to a higher standard when they offer an opinion. That’s because part of the job of a reporter is to access and report facts, not hyperbole, speculation and innuendo. If reporters don’t have the facts, they can get them. That’s what reporters do.
I’ve used this space on a number of occasions to write about Child Welfare Services and the important work social workers, teachers, school administrators, school nurses, child care providers and others do to help keep children safe by reporting suspected cases of abuse or neglect.
Readers of the Bulletin will note that the Department of Social Services has made regular contributions to this space in an effort to educate and inform the public about what social workers can and cannot do in their efforts to keep children in our community safe.
Much of what gets done in the Child Welfare arena is accomplished behind the scenes and generally out of the public eye. Juvenile Court sessions in Plumas County are closed to the public and all matters connected with cases are confidential. There is a good reason for this: Children should not be exposed to secondary trauma as a consequence of having what has happened to them exposed to the public.
So it could well be that efforts undertaken by social workers in specific matters stay behind the scenes. Sometimes that can lead to the incorrect perspective that Child Protective Services hasn’t responded to a referral for investigation. We may well have, but we can’t and won’t talk about it.
There is also the matter of what constitutes abuse or neglect. The Department regularly receives referrals for parenting (or the lack of it) that we can’t do a lot about. Or referrals that cover situations that have taken place out of the home that don’t fall within our mandate. We will work with families to try to improve parenting skills and we’ll make referrals to proper authorities when we aren’t able to intervene directly. The reality is that those efforts aren’t always successful.
Children who come into the Child Welfare system do so because a parent or parents have created a living situation that is dangerous. Because no two child protective services cases are the same, drawing a conclusion from one or two cases really doesn’t do justice to the wonderful work that social workers, foster care providers and others do in the interest of trying to improve the lives of abused and neglected children.
I am saddened when well-worn, over-utilized stereotypes of civil servants get applied to all the good people, including social workers, who choose unflattering careers where most of the rewards are seldom, if ever, seen by the public at large. Stereotypes do little to inform the public or educate them about what can or cannot be done for children in the child welfare system, other than to inflame passions and promote inaccuracies.
Sure, there are probably things that social workers do occasionally that could be done differently or better. Social workers would readily tell you that. They are after all, just like the rest of us: They’re humans. But one thing I can assure you they don’t do when they work with abused children is “phone it in.”
Facts to back up an assertion like that would be nice to see. Because, as this is being written, there are social workers who are spending their evenings and nights with abused children instead of being home with their own families.
Social workers get called out in the middle of the night, weekends and holidays to help keep our children safe. Two years ago, as reported in this newspaper, CPS social workers saved the life of a child that was mere hours from death and whose siblings had already been murdered. That’s what social workers do. It’s hardly “phoning it in.”
Describing children in the foster care system as being “treated like delinquents” and foster parents as “in it for the cash” does a wholesale disservice to many of the wonderful people who open their homes to abused, neglected and abandoned children. Just ask Carol Donald who fostered over 100 children in the Bay Area. Sure there are imperfections and flaws in the foster care system. And we are constantly at work trying to improve it.
“Making a sport of seeing (children) fail?” Where are there any facts that back up that assertion, moreover any policy or circumstances that could be reported on that document that conclusion? And how does that educate the public?
“Departments designed to protect children fail to understand how to speak to children.” As I described above, a social worker’s interactions with children in our system are confidential and I am unaware of the public or a reporter having routine access to those interactions. So here again, one could rightly question where the facts are that back up that statement.
The practices our Department of Social Services follows in Child Protective Services are open and transparent. We have participated in California’s statewide system and outcome improvement process for the past 12 years. That process is also open and transparent. Get the facts. They are easily available.