‘A Day in the Life …’

By Chris Berendt

April 30, 2014

A Child Protective Services worker can have the worst and most rewarding job at the same time, working to save children who are in the most deplorable, abusive and neglectful situations imaginable.

And cases have only gotten larger in number and more extreme in nature, Sampson County Child Services workers said during a short seminar Wednesday afternoon.

“A Day in the Life of a Child Protective Services Worker in Sampson County,” a monthly community education series sponsored by Sampson Regional Medical Center and Eastpointe, was held at the Center for Health and Wellness. Sampson County Department of Social Services Child Protective Services supervisor Jane Dudley, social worker Alexis Coleman and Shannon Blanchard, volunteer coordinator of a local Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT) that began reviewing local child abuse cases in October 2012, each spoke during the session.

In recognition of April’s Child Abuse Awareness Month, Blanchard and Dudley have raised awareness of child abuse and neglect in recent weeks, with both leading the charge for the local establishment of a Child Advocacy Center and Dudley coordinating a candlelight vigil just a couple weeks ago.

As April wrapped up Wednesday, Dudley took a small group on hand at Wednesday’s session through some of what child welfare workers are confronted with each day.

“When we investigate allegations and we determine that neglect or abuse is occurring, one of two things will happen. We will either work with the children while they remain in their home or we will take them out of the home. We try to keep those children in the home and work with the family while the family is intact,” said Dudley. “That is not always possible. We’re dealing with children who are exposed to drugs and sex abuse. We get children who are severely physically abused, including bite marks, burns, broken limbs, just to name a few.”

Some children are put in kinship placement or foster care due to the severity of the cases and the lack of relatives to care for them. Other parents simply need help with their parenting habits and keeping their house clean and free of being “an injurious environment.”

However, what used to be dirty house reports have in recent years turned up much more, including drugs and sex abuse.

“It’s not just a simple dirty house anymore. The reports are more intense and our reports are increasing,” Dudley commented. “We’re getting more reports and the intensity of the reports is growing, to the point where at times it doesn’t seem we have enough manpower to be able to respond to all these reports even though we’re legally mandated to do so. And we are (responding), but we are struggling with that.”

Dudley noted recently working a case that involved sex abuse, extensive pornography and sex trafficking in which Homeland Security personnel were called in. While law enforcement does not often participate in the initial response to a report, it is not long before it becomes a criminal matter involving police, sheriff’s deputies, State Bureau of Investigation agents or others.

“The dynamics of the cases are changing,” said Dudley, who has worked with DSS since 2005. She pointed again to the Homeland Security case. “Whereas we never had that experience before, now we’ve dealt with that. I would suggest that was one of the top three worst cases I’ve ever seen.”

And it is no longer out of the ordinary.

“There’s more sex abuse now than I’ve ever seen,” said Dudley. “Every year, the numbers are going up. The same can be said of physical abuse. Sex and physical abuse and neglect have always been there, so it could be that the public is more aware of how to report and what they should be reporting.”

The local MDT consists of members of DSS, medical and health professionals, law enforcement, child welfare advocates as well as school and prosecutorial representatives. They investigate abuse cases, of which there were 60 open cases of sexual abuse last month. Blanchard said the county averages about six new cases a month. They had nine new cases this month.

Currently, there are 34 Child Advocacy Centers that provide service to 78 counties across the state. Sampson is not one of them. The county could benefit from a CAC, which would offer a neutral safe haven for children that allows investigators, Social Services, medical professionals and others to more effectively serve the child without overwhelming them or causing them to relive their experiences, Blanchard said.

CACs also offer a forum for child forensic interviews, vital in investigating child abuse and neglect cases.

“They help us determine what other factors might be involved in the situation,” Coleman said

“We know something has happened, but there are certain things that you have to prove,” Dudley added. “The statistics on having physical findings of a child who has been sexually abused are next to none. If you have a room full of 100 children and we know without a shadow of a doubt that all 100 of those children have been seuxally abused, only five of them would have physical findings, so 95 percent of the cases have no physical findings. We’re relying heavily on the consistency of the child and having a forensic interview who is trained to interview children.”

There are limits on what DSS can become involved in, a source of frustration for some who believe DSS should be investigating cases it cannot. On the flip side, others argue their rights and call DSS intrusive.

“It’s a situation a lot of times where you’re darned if you do, darned if you don’t,” Dudley said. “I completely understand why it is frustrating. I was shocked when I began working there to see what types of cases we can and cannot get involved in, but parents have rights.”

When judges order children back into the custody of a parent who has been abusive and neglectful, there is a chance the parent will commit those acts again.

“There is a chance that you may re-offend that child and the child comes out of the (home) again, so it’s a cycle sometimes,” Dudley attested. “We just hope what we did when we were involved will assist to the point that child will not have to endure abuse and neglect again. Our goal is really to help families and keep them together, (even) if they have to be separated for a time to reunify them. We don’t get many ‘thank yous’ and we are not received well when we knock on your door.”

But there are many times when DSS intervenes and a child is saved.

“It’s a lot, but it’s rewarding, knowing that we are pretty much saving children’s lives,” Coleman said.

She recalled going out to a home that was in particularly horrible condition to find there was a 1-year-old child and an autistic 11-year-old child in the home. The stepfather had locked him in a room and there were derogatory signs all over the walls in the home and similar messages spray-painted on the house about the 11-year-old. DSS workers also found feces on the floor and homemade weapons in the home.

“It was just really bad for that child,” Coleman said.

Dudley said the child was able to be put with other family and she agreed with Coleman that it was a positive story about a child being saved and protected by those charged to do so. And Coleman is still working with the family — it is a job that never stops.

“I always tell people it’s a job I hate and it’s a job I love,” Dudley stated. “Sometimes you are just so overwhelmed you want to walk out, but then you have those days that are so rewarding, that’s what keeps you there.”

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.