Brenda McGowan, DSW
Professor, James R. Dumpson
Chair of Child Welfare Studies
Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service
In developing cases for analysis in social work classes, our primary objective was to select and present cases that convey the reality of practice in child protective services – the excitement, the demands, the conflicting expectations, and the enormous variability of practice. Representatives of the ACS Accountability Review Panel in conjunction with the James Satterwhite Child Welfare Training Academy initially selected eight cases for consideration. Six were identified from ongoing ChildStat reviews, and two from records in Connections.
We reviewed these cases, identified five that seemed like good candidates for this project. These five were reviewed by the Real Cases Committee and the Director of the Training Academy who together selected the three presented here. These cases were selected because they demonstrate good, but not perfect investigations, fairly typical types of case situations, a range of allegations, and very diverse client populations. One involves a charge of spouse abuse in an immigrant family from the Caribbean with two young children, another a charge of grandparent’s abuse of a black teenage boy whose parents are out of state, and the third involves a white mother with severe mental illness who left a latency age boy alone unsupervised. One of these cases has a long history of involvement with CPS, the others are totally new. All were new to the workers who were charged with investigating these allegations.
To explain the selection process we followed, it is necessary to describe the complexity of the two types of CPS records we reviewed. First, Connections is a massive computerized data information system introduced years ago to track all child welfare cases in New York State. This system contains a number of narrative sections, as well as many that require the worker to select among pre-coded options. Designed to cover each case from intake or the initial complaint through investigation, assessment, service planning and provision for each family member, it requires multiple entries from all the workers and supervisory personnel who have any contact with the case or provide any of the required approvals. An outsider reading a Connections case record gets the impression that this instrument was designed to monitor compliance with all the regulations governing child welfare practice, not to tell the story of a case. Entries are all made chronologically and frozen so changes cannot be made later. Instead, if the worker or supervisor decides to correct a fact or assessment entered earlier, this can only be done by making another entry. The result is that it is easy to have a lengthy Connections document of well over 40 pages that is very repetitious, may contain conflicting information, and cannot be skimmed easily to obtain the basic facts about a case. However, child protective workers and supervisors must often form their practice decisions on the basis of the complex and sometimes contradictory information in Connections.
Second, the Commissioner of ACS recently introduced a new case practice accountability tool, ChildStat. Modeled on the CompStat program used in the City’s police precincts, it is designed as a system for communication among all managerial levels about work at the frontline in child protective services. Staff members from the agency's Office of Accountability review a sample of the cases from each borough office and write carefully constructed, very detailed summaries of the essential facts in each sampled child protective report. These summaries are distributed to a ChildStat committee that reviews cases from different boroughs on a rotating basis. This committee is composed of top agency administrators, directors of relevant borough offices, and case supervisors who answer questions for each case under discussion. The ChildStat program is widely viewed as a successful innovation that keeps central administration informed about what is happening at the field level and provides important feedback to different levels in the field office about errors or omissions the workers may be making and ways to improve the quality of practice.
The ChildStat program was very valuable for this curriculum project for two reasons:
First, the succinct, factual case summaries written for ChildStat provided an easier way to view and select a range of cases than the complex Connections records.
Second, these reports are written in a way that highlights the fact patterns that must be addressed in each child protective report. These include:
- basic demographic data;
- each family member’s response to the allegations in the report of child abuse or neglect;
- a full description of the family’s house or apartment with attention to space, sleeping arrangements, and cleanliness;
- family’s financial situation;
- any substance abuse in the home;
- any allegation of domestic violence;
- information about any prior contact between family and CPS;
- summary of interview with each adult member of the household;
- parents’ description of the children and any special concerns identified;
- summary of interview with and/or observation of each child in the home;
- summary of contact with complainant and any other relevant person, e.g., school teacher;
- description of any recent family crises;
- any issues that require emergency assistance;
- list of all requested services;
- worker’s recommendation about opening this case and making a finding.
We have tried to present the cases here in a very accessible, reader-friendly manner to encourage class discussion and analysis. However, the Connections and ChildStat programs are described in detail because it is important for students to understand the complex regulatory framework within which child protective workers must function. It is easy to get very frustrated with all the forms and regulations, but these are essential because children’s lives may be at stake. The rare child fatality case that explodes in the media every year or two illustrates why responsible public officials must create and enforce such a firm regulatory framework for protective practice.
In reading each of the cases presented here, students are encouraged to consider the range of information available, any interesting or troubling omissions or contradictions in the facts the CPS worker was able to gather, your case assessment, the subsequent service recommendations you would make, and any glaring deficiencies in the larger service and/or policy environment highlighted by this case.