A Tennessee federal judge in November ordered the arrest of all the employees at the Franklin County Department of Children’s Services for refusing to implement his ruling on a custody case involving a two-year-old child.
Tennessee's child protective services office has been embroiled in scandal. Among other problems, caseworkers have been accused of falsify records and the state legislature has threatened to dismantle thestate's foster care system unless the DCS reforms. In the case of the Franklin County arrests, the judge ruled that the child should be turned over to one of the parties in the custody case. DCS did not agree with judge's ruling; they refused to turn the child over while they tried to stay the ruling.
And the Tennessee case may not be an isolated one. Some recent court decisions suggest that judges may be growing as frustrated with the child protective system as the families caught in it.
In May, a federal jury decided that a caseworker with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services failed to protect three foster children who were brutally abused while in state custody. The jury found the caseworker knew of the abuse and ignored it, and violated the children's civil rights by failing to protect them. The children were awarded $3.3 million.
In Maine, a committee of the state legislature studying the state’s child protective services system came to some scathing conclusions. The report, released in November, found that the state relied too much on foster care and needed to make greater efforts to keep families together.
In April, in a class action suit filed by child-care workers and foster parents wrongfully accused of abuse, a federal judge ruled that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services needed to meet a higher standard of proof before reporting the workers as abusers to their employers.
Evidence presented in the Illinois case found that three-fourths of child care workers found to have abused or neglected a child were exonerated after appealing those finding, though sometimes not until years later. In the meantime, care workers and foster parents were being entered into a registry of abusers based on being accused and suffering the consequences of that listing long before their cases were decided once and for all.
Parents, however, don't have the power judges do and it is still a rare case that makes it to a civil trial. That 's why activists are calling for reforms that will increase caseworkers accountability and impose penalties on those who act arbitrarily or vindictively.
The notion that a social worker would act purely out of vindictiveness sounds like parent propoganda, but California saw the need to pass a law specifically addressing that possibility. It allows for the prosecution of social workers who have been proven to have acted with intentional malice. Activists say it is almost impossible to prove a caseworker acted maliciously, but some accountability is better than none. Consider this Massachusetts case:
Postal worker David Luisi lost custody of his three children to his ex-wife for refusing to enroll in a program for "angry men"—because the only person he was angry at was the caseworker.
The couple separated in 1994 and Luisi was eventually awarded custody of the children after their mother gave them up, saying she couldn't cope with the pressures of raising them. But in 1997, the mother filed a false abuse charge against Luisi. Based on that accusation, the Department of Social Services gave the children to the mother.
It took almost two years for Luisi to get a hearing, clear his name and then wait for DSS to correct their records. The children remained with the mother throughout the ordeal, during which time a doctor diagnosed Luisi's young daughter as suffering from malnutrition and the mother's boyfriend was charged with assaulting one of his sons.
Luisi informed DSS that he planned to seek custody of his children and pestered the social worker on the case to investigate his wife’s fitness. Concerned that the children appeared to be malnourished and neglected in their mother's care and that her boyfriend was a danger, Luisi and his relatives complained to police, to the DSS and to the media that the children were being neglected.
In 1999, the social worker on the case sought an emergency order to terminate the Luisi’s visitation rights, claiming that his phone calls and anxiety over the fate of his children indicated he had problems with anger management. Visitation could only be resumed if he agreed to attend a program for men with anger issues that required participants to admit they were abusive. The alleged anger and abuse the social worker claimed required this treatment was not aimed at his own children. She was demanding he enroll in the program because she didn’t like the way he was treating her.
Luisi, who had been unequivocally cleared of the false abuse charge, feared that attending the program would brand him an abuser and hurt his chances of regaining custody when the case came to trial. He decided not to seek visitation with his children if it meant having to attend the classes.
But the case did not come to trial for another year. When it did come to trial in July, 2001, the judge gave full custody to the mother, ruling against the father because he had waited a full year to seek visitation. The judge also granted the mother permission to move to Niagra Falls, New York with the children. The judge said Luisi put his own selfish needs above the needs of his children. Yet it was the system that forced him to wait a year to seek visitation by demanding he enroll in a program for abusers because he was making too many phone calls to the social worker handling the case.
This need for greater accountability is the root of many problems with child services, activists maintain.
In the case of activist Nev Moore, her daughter was removed from their home, she said, as a strategy to force Moore to admit to being abused by her husband. Because she wouldn't, the state kept her daughter. In other cases documented by activist organizations, social workers have defined abuse or neglect as parenting or family lifestyle choices they disagree with.
"If we had an accountability statue put in place these social workers would be a little more reluctant to go after these … frivolous cases that are blocking up our court system," said attorney Janet Frederick Wilson.