Why Social Workers Fail to Protect Children

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DHS FailureKathy Marshack
By Kathy Marshack, Ph.D.
Investigative Journalist

I wasn't one of those social workers.

It galls me to hear the stories of how Oregon social workers (with DHS) are endangering children with their shoddy work. I was a state social worker years ago and trust me it was not an easy job. At the time I was a young woman in my twenties with a Masters of Social Work degree. I took my job seriously. So did my colleagues. For me the hard part wasn’t working with the families. I gave them my all and they seemed to appreciate it, because I helped them out of a mess to restore their families. It wasn’t the parents or the children that made my job tough; it was the incompetence and undermining of my supervisors, administrators and the juvenile justice system in Multnomah County, Oregon.

For example, I was told by one judge that I should return an eight month old infant back to the unrelated truck driver who had picked up the child at a truck stop in Rhode Island. The trucker said he was helping out a single mom, who was in need of respite. So the story goes. Once the trucker got back to Oregon he and his wife handed the child over to another stranger (another single mom on state assistance with three of her own children) because they didn’t want to take care of an infant. Do you think it makes sense to keep passing this baby around, or give him back to the trucker? The judge’s reasoning was that Oregon didn’t have jurisdiction over a child from Rhode Island. Nonsense. I disobeyed the judge and fought for the baby, at the risk of going to jail for contempt.

On another occasion I got a call from OHSU emergency regarding a five year old boy who had overdosed on his mother’s tranquilizers. This was the third time he’d had his stomach pumped and finally a resident at OHSU decided to call Child Protective Services, instead of send him back to his deadly mother. The child told me that his mother gave him the tranquilizers to keep him quiet. When I asked this little boy if he knew that the pills could kill him, he nodded his head in the affirmative. I asked him why he took the lethal medicine and he said, “Because my mommy told me too.” I had to fight the juvenile court for months to protect this child because the mother’s attorney made the argument that the mom had stabilized from her mental illness. It could have been true, but should we take another chance like that? By the way the child’s nightmares stopped when he was adopted by his foster parents.

I could tell you more anecdotes but the next story is a good summary of how social workers and the children (and families they serve) are sabotaged by the bureaucratic system they work within. It has been decades since I worked for the state and it doesn’t appear anything has changed. The protection of vulnerable children is up for grabs. Social workers are poorly trained (in the domestic violence they are charged with investigating) and paid a pittance for the incredible assignment they are given. The courts, the police, and DHS social service administrators haven’t a clue how to actually design a system to help these families. About half the time things work out for these children only because a stoic social worker risks his/her job to protect the child. As a result of these terrible circumstances that burn out well intentioned professionals, the state loses experienced social workers who may have saved some of those children in need.

The following story is about one of the last cases I handled for the State of Oregon. I describe not only the child abuse itself but I expose my supervisor and various agency administrators who sabotaged my efforts to protect children. This case still affects me emotionally even though it happened over thirty years ago.

I have some PTSD from my work as a social worker.

I had a PTSD moment when I opened the church bulletin for Sunday’s worship service. I had arrived early and settled into my seat to read the bulletin to catch up on church happenings. Among the various announcements included along with the outline for the service, was a flyer promoting a racism awareness class. Later I listened as the pastor discussed the class and encouraged us to attend. Our pastor is never pushy. He just smiles and graciously offers options to the congregation. However, this option is annoying to me. Annoying because a presenter for the class is Kathleen P., one of the bullies in my past who wreaked havoc for me when I worked as a state social worker.

PTSD can take many forms. According to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) PTSD is considered a normal reaction to abnormal stressors. Those reactions can be fear, anxiety, hypervigilance, anger, shame, etc. For Kathleen I have anger or perhaps revulsion. I don’t trust her. She was a phony 37 years ago. A liar and manipulator. A gossip. A backstabber. I want to believe she has changed, especially because I love my church and admire our devoted pastor. But deep in my heart I believe she is the same old Kathleen and now she has wheedled her way into my world again. I wondered what damage she would cause this time. That’s the PTSD showing; triggered to feel fear that an old adversary was back to harm me again. It could be true. I can’t afford to take the chance.

This isn’t the first time I was aware that Kathleen was back. A while ago, I noticed a flyer posted at the back of the sanctuary advertising a writer’s workshop she was offering. It was canceled due to lack of participation. I was silently pleased. Yet I found it interesting that I never bumped into her at church. We are a small congregation and most everyone knows everyone. I asked about her but no one seemed to know who she was. I wondered if she was a member of one of the other related churches in the Portland area. Or perhaps she was just hawking her snake oil to whomever was foolish enough to bite. Or maybe she is mentally deranged like Rachel Dolezal, the former director of the Washington NAACP who masqueraded as black when she was really a white woman. It could be true. Kathleen masqueraded as a competent social service professional for many years too.

I hate that I can be this vindictive. Is it the anger that keeps me safe? I suppose Kathleen’s betrayal all of those years ago helped me to face other bullies over the years. Through her machinations I learned that I needed cunning to stand up to bullies. Most people do not understand this. They think all it takes to confront and win with bullies is to be assertive, but it requires more. Bullies are sneaky. It requires cunning to fight a bully. It requires tenacity and a well thought out strategy. I didn’t have that at the time that Kathleen cost me my job, but I do now.

My supervisor just wanted to harm me.

I met Kathleen P. 37 years ago when she came to work in my unit at the Multnomah County Branch of Child Protective Services (State of Oregon Children’s Services Division, now under the umbrella of DHS). She was quickly promoted to become my supervisor. It seemed odd at the time to me that she would be promoted so quickly but I was a young social worker and had other plans (like returning to graduate school for my Ph.D.). Working my way to the top of a state social service agency was not my plan. I liked being a social worker. I liked problem solving with my clients; going to court and helping people who were down on their luck. I got accolades from previous supervisors for helping families resolve their problems in spite of child abuse and neglect. But when Kathleen took over it was different.

Verdeen came to me one morning and asked to talk on the QT. Verdeen was this warm loving Mama of a unit secretary for our group of eight social workers. She was a large woman who had a broad smile. She liked taking care of me and I enjoyed it too. For example, Verdeen insisted that I use gel pens because she couldn’t read my handwriting when I filled out forms; she thought the gel pen would slow me down. She adopted my boyfriend’s dog because he neglected the animal. She seemed to always be there when you needed her. I was only in my twenties then but I wondered if Verdeen’s loving nature was a result of having survived the suicide of her husband. He blew his brains out in their living room; she told me that she never did get all of the blood out of the carpet.

Verdeen looked me straight in the eyes and spoke softly but seriously, “I’ve been told to watch you and report to your supervisor. I’m supposed to document when you leave the office and how long you take for lunch break. Kathleen and the Branch Manager are out to get you. I won’t do it, but I want you to know what’s going on.” Then she turned back to her typewriter and acted as if nothing important had been said. I remember standing there puzzled and trying to understand. It would be many years before I truly understood why bullies do what they do. It’s simple really. Without a conscience, the bully’s only goal is to cause harm to their intended victim.

So why was Kathleen out to get me? It’s as intriguing as the infighting at Donald Trump’s White House. In the course of my job I had stumbled onto evidence that social workers and administrators at the Oregon Department of Children’s Services had engaged in misconduct and caused the suffering of children in foster care. As an informal whistleblower I had apparently shamed the agency. Sadly one way to deal with whistleblowers is to fire them, instead of improving the conditions that led to the problems.

I was just doing my job.

At first the Bernard case was just another assignment from the CPS Intake worker.1 A nineteen year old young woman was calling to report the abuse of her sixteen year old sister, in the home of her mother and stepfather. When I spoke with the older sister a larger story started to unfold. These cases are never really all that simple. Child abuse and neglect never is. But there were a couple of unusual twists to this story. First the sixteen year old was a special needs kid with Cerebral Palsy (CP). Secondly, her parents (the alleged abusers) were certified foster parents, caring for other special needs kids. The older sister, now out of the home, felt safe enough to report on her mother and stepfather, especially because her younger sister was being slapped around and her head held under water as punishment.

I talked with the sixteen year old the next day at school (as well as some of the other foster children at the home). More of the story tumbled. The sixteen year old confirmed what her older sister told me and that she was afraid to go home. She also reported that the foster boys in the home were being beaten and starved as punishment. She reported that the foster girls said that the foster father was molesting them under the pretense of feeling them up at night to make sure they were asleep in their beds. Based on what she told me (and the reports of the other teenagers in the home), I placed her in foster care. I filed a temporary custody and protection order with the Multnomah County Juvenile Court and prepared to go to Court on behalf of the child.

In the meantime I did a routine records check on the foster mom. I learned that she had been an abused and neglected child herself, who as a teenager was eventually sent to Maple Lane, a girl’s correctional facility in Washington State. Soon after graduating from Maple Lane she met the father of her children, but after a few babies they divorced. As a young single mom, with no means of support except state assistance, she decided to give her two year old daughter to Children’s Services Division, the Oregon State agency responsible for insuring the welfare of children.

The child with CP was abandoned to the State of Oregon when she was a toddler. This was not a temporary placement. The single mother complained that she had too many children to care for and was not able to care for her special needs baby, whom she referred to as “retarded.” The child wasn’t retarded of course but had a neurological illness requiring extensive medical care (CP). This child remained in foster care for twelve years (in the custody of the State of Oregon), requiring ten or more surgeries, all of which the state paid for. During this time, the single mom never visited her child. She was content to pretend that this child did not exist.

Eventually this mom remarried. Meanwhile her daughter grew up in foster care. In an effort to make some extra money, the couple, Mr. and Mrs. Bernard (the mother and stepfather), applied to the state to become foster parents for severely mentally ill children. This way they could get an extra stipend over and above the usual foster care fee. The Multnomah County branch of CSD certified the home in spite of the fact that Mrs. Bernard had a child whom she had abandoned to foster care years before. On the Bernard’s application for certification, Mrs. Bernard failed to mention the name of the daughter in foster care, even though she was specifically asked to list all children, including those not living with her. She did however make the caveat that she wanted no foster children with a physical disability.

Over the years word leaked among some social workers that there was abuse going on in the Bernard home. For example, the Albina Branch Manager of Multnomah County CSD quietly decided to stop placing foster children in the Bernard home. However, he did not report the abuse to the foster home certification unit, so the home remained open for traumatized kids to be placed by naïve social workers from other branches of the state agency.

Another move by the state to cover up this mess was the terrible decision to remove the daughter with CP from her foster home of twelve years and return her to her mother, Mrs. Bernard. The excuse used was that children should be returned to their parents if the parent had stabilized. (I guess she was considered stabilized because she was a certified foster parent; never mind that a Branch Manager refused to use this foster mother for kids from his branch). There was also a huge state budget cut at about this time, so I assume the agency was looking for ways to save money.

A year or two after the daughter with CP moved back with her mother, one of those traumatized foster boys placed with the Bernard’s became violent. Apparently he attacked two of the Bernard children, including the daughter with cerebral palsy. He held her head under water in the family swimming pool, something the foster parents did as a matter of course to punish the children.

The opportunity to make some money was not lost on the Bernard’s, who promptly sued the State of Oregon on behalf of their children because of the attack by the foster child. I didn’t know about the lawsuit until I made a call to the Branch Manager of the Multnomah County Foster Care Certification unit. Although my assignment was to investigate the complaint of abuse of one child, I presumed the manager would want the information that I was uncovering. Considering that there were other foster children still in the home, I called the Branch Manager to report that a child abuse investigation was underway. Plus, I thought she might want to contact all of the social workers involved with the several children living at this home. Things were definitely getting complicated.

One more step I took was to contact the Attorney General for the State of Oregon in order to advise them of my investigation. It seemed obvious to me that they might want this information if they were managing a lawsuit brought by the Bernard’s against the state. Of course the attorney for the state was very interested and requested copies of the entire record. Verdeen copied everything for me and mailed it to the Attorney General’s office at the state capital in Salem, Oregon.

No good deed goes unpunished.

I was stunned to learn that the agency was in turmoil over my investigation. I should have known better, but I was naïve. The various branch managers were furious with me because I exposed their participation in the cover-up. My supervisor was ordered by the CPS branch manager to remove me from the case, giving the excuse that I had become too emotionally involved. However, that plan was halted when the Attorney General stepped in because he needed my testimony for the lawsuit.

Furthermore, without ever talking with me the “Willamette Week,” a local newspaper reported a false story that a social worker with Children’s Services Division was retaliating against the Bernard’s for their lawsuit by removing their daughter from the home. Because of the lawsuit the state attorney would not allow me to talk to the journalist to clear up these lies.

I did my best to manage the case through the Juvenile Court system even though Kathleen was out to get me. I was monitored constantly for any slip up she could nail on me. I was hurt and angry and scared by Kathleen’s bullying, but I didn’t know how to protect myself. One day I received a certified letter that complaints had been filed against me by my supervisor and branch manager. The complaints were for incompetence and insubordination. According to their accusations they had determined that I was out of line to go directly to the Branch Manager of the Foster Home Certification unit without first getting permission from my Branch Manager. It didn’t matter that I was just doing my job to protect innocent children. Kathleen and the others wanted revenge. Rather than fight through all of this unreasonableness I decided to quit and leave the agency to Kathleen and her cronies.

Before I officially left the agency, I hired an attorney and decided to go to the disciplinary hearing regarding the complaints against me. I still remember the puzzled look on the face of the hearings examiner when she said, “I have reviewed your personnel file and see that you have nothing but superior performance ratings from supervisors, and letters of commendation from members of the community such as judges and other officials. Could you explain to me how you came to be in front of this board for incompetence and insubordination?”

My attorney said nothing. I politely asked, “Perhaps you could tell me since it does seem extraordinary?” I also told her we needn’t continue the proceeding since I had tendered my resignation. My attorney verified that the disciplinary board would drop the charges against me so that I could leave in peace and not have the black mark on my record. With that agreement I moved on to my career as a psychotherapist in private practice, and later to earn my doctorate in psychology. Some who have known me for years tell me I have a lifetime dedication to the underdog and fighting injustice. I suppose that is true.

On a positive note the child with cerebral palsy was able to return to her old foster home where she was wanted and loved. She lived there for three more years until she graduated from high school. The other foster children were placed in safe homes too. The Bernard’s voluntarily relinquished their foster home certification.

How do we keep our children safe?

I had one contact from Kathleen a year or so after leaving the agency. She mailed me a dime taped to a note card inside an envelope with no return address. She wrote a short note of apology for any harm she may have caused me, and signed her name. Odd. Yes she caused a lot of harm and not just to me but to the innocent children trapped in that foster home. But a dime? I assumed at the time that she had joined AA and was advised by her sponsor to “make amends,” which is one of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to help the alcoholic/addict on their path of recovery. It was a pitiful attempt at making amends, but at least I knew she knew she’d bullied me.

It strikes me as ironic that Kathleen advertises herself as a specialist in the field of racism and race relations. Racist behavior is bullying, too. In racism, an innocent person is targeted for no reason other than the color of their skin or their national origin. Perhaps Kathleen is using lessons from her years as a bully to build a career path. I would like to believe she is aware of her career choices and truly wants to make amends for all of her wrong doing. Even if it is a blind attempt to clear her conscience, it would be a good thing to use her life lessons to help our community heal from racism.

As for me, the church bulletin started the process to help me get clear that my annoyance with Kathleen is entirely appropriate. I had no control over her actions all of those years ago. She was just mean for no reason other than she was being pressured by her boss and lacked the courage to say “no.” She chose a job promotion over protecting children or backing a colleague. A social worker shouldn’t be placed in this situation but apparently it still happens, as evidence reveals in the current investigations by the US~Observer into DHS child abuse cases.

However, one more investigation by a politician will not fix this. It makes no sense to me to lay the blame only on social workers for the state’s inability to design a better system. Even if the social workers are better trained, they still have to answer to supervisors and administrators who work for a multi-layered dysfunctional bureaucracy. The family courts are a mess, too. And why are the police involved in cases of family distress anyway? For that matter, why are social workers doing police work?

Children have no rights even though they are Americans, so they are dependent upon us to keep them safe. Amidst the turmoil of this messed up system, how on earth are the caring, competent and responsible state social workers supposed to tend to the safety of our children, when they are faced with the kinds of challenges that drove me out?

Kathy Marshack, Ph.D. is a Licensed Psychologist and an investigative reporter for the US~Observer. Her soon to be released book on corruption in Vancouver, Washington is entitled “No one calls me Mom anymore.”

More from the US~Observer:

Dishonorable Ronald Grensky,
A Poor Example of a Judge

"F" Grade for Child Caseworkers in this State:
Senator deems DHS is in,
"A State of Chaos and Disrepair."

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