Tag Archives: child protection

The challenge of full disclosure in the Land of Nice

“I need to talk to you about your drinking.”

I am often asked what it takes to be a child protection social worker.      While there are so many necessary skills, none is more important than the ability to be unflinchingly honest and direct, while at the same time being kind and respectful.   As a lifelong Midwesterner, where so many would rather eat hairy soup than find the words to send it back, the challenge in this is great.

“I know you said that you haven’t been drinking today, but you are slurring your words and I can smell liquor.”

What usually follows at this point is shock that these words have been spoken aloud.    These straightforward conversations become part of the trauma of working with child protective services because being direct is so uncommon, and therefore painful.

Midwesterners are often afraid of words.  We struggle with accepting compliments, expressing an opinion, asking for what we need.   Instead we have perfected the art of heavy sighs, eye rolling and stony silence.   But non-verbals, which can be quite effective in communicating messages to those who recognize them, aren’t enough when a child’s safety is at risk.

Don't Speak

“I’m concerned about the impact your drinking has had on your family.   Your kids keep missing school because you are not awake in the morning to help them get on the bus, and they are frequently going to bed hungry because there’s no food in the house.    Let’s ask your sister to stay with you for a few weeks while we get you an assessment.”

When a family becomes involved with Child Protective Services, fears abound.     Families assume that CPS will put their kids in foster care forever.    In actuality, foster care placement is rare, but the possibility of losing their kids looms.

The remedy is supposed to be full disclosure.      We are expected to tell families in clear, upfront language what needs to change, and be just as clear and upfront when we tell them what will happen if they don’t make those changes.

I understand that you don’t like this idea.   But if we can’t agree on a plan to get you help, I may have to ask the court to have your kids formally placed with your sister. 

As difficult as they are, these conversations pave the way for change.     Families understand what is expected, and even though they may not agree at first, most family members do what they need to do.

The conversations don’t have to be limited to child protection workers.    Anyone who is worried about a child’s safety needs to find the words to talk about the concerns and get help.

My novels, Unprotected and Unattached tell the stories of Minnesota social workers who struggle through these uncomfortable conversations.     My books can be found on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and in local book stores.

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Jump In

I have to admit that I forgot.

I started this job so long ago, I don’t remember what it is like to not know.

I am starting to hear back from people who have read Unattached.   Some have said that they enjoy the mystery and quick pace, or they love the romantic tension between the two leads, and they are excited to continue with characters they enjoyed from Unprotected.

But I have also heard this:

“The abuse cases were awful.   Does that stuff really happen?”

“The child abuse parts were hard to read.”

I could never do your job.”

The comments caught me off-guard; I genuinely forgot that child abuse is hard to read about.  And then that realization surprised me even more.   When did child abuse become routine for me?  Is this what happens to people who do this job for 20 years?

One of the major storylines of Unattached involves a case of a 2 year old who is severely beaten and suffers a brain injury and multiple broken bones.  It is not a “typical” case–it is child abuse at its worst.   I have only experienced a handful of such cases in my career, and they were anything but routine.   There have been times when I fall asleep thinking about a kid on my caseload and wake up with that kiddo’s face still in my mind.    Sometimes I meet with a kid and hear such awful things that all I can do is go back to my desk and stare at the wall.  Terrible cases make it clear that child abuse still gets to me.

It reminds me of the story about frogs and their tolerance for heat.   It has been said that if a frog that is dropped in boiling water, it will recognize the danger and jump out.   But if a frog is placed in cool water and then the heat is slowly increased, it will never realize it’s getting hot and will die.   .

frog in water

I want to believe that those of us who last in child protection find a way to take a break from that boiling pot long enough to rest and restore, and hopefully to allow the water to cool down.   Unfortunately, even when we get away from the cauldron of work, we can’t get away from the worries of whether we asked right questions or made the safest decisions.      The hard part is that if we are going to stay in this job, we have to jump back in.

I wrote Unprotected and Unattached because I wanted to try to explain that heat–the worry about decisions made, the frustration about being misunderstood, the fear a child may get hurt again.   I hope to give a glimpse of what is happening to kids and families in every community, every day.    Writing these books was also therapeutic for me because I got to choose the ending, and I chose to find the resilience and the hope in the characters, just like I do in my clients.

Unprotected and Unattached can be found at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and some local bookstores.   I hope readers will decide to jump in.

Top 10 lessons learned from a career in child protection

top 10 keyboar

  1. Most kids fare better with their own parents than they do in great foster homes.  For some kids this isn’t possible, and then we do the very best we can to find fabulous adoptive homes where many kids live wonderful lives.   But the statistics don’t lie–overall kids have better outcomes if they can safely remain with the parents who raised them.
  2. So anything we can do to strengthen families is time and money well spent.
  3. Many addicts never quit.   Most repeatedly cycle through relapse and recovery, with some mired in relapse, some firmer in their recovery.
  4. So anything we can do to prevent addiction is also time and money well spent.
  5. A few people are truly terrible.    Unfixable, to the core terrible.    But in the thousands of people I have seen, I have witnessed the reprehensible only a handful of times.
  6. Parents love their kids and are usually doing the best they can.    Child protection workers who can’t find empathy for parents shouldn’t be child protection workers.    We can hold them accountable, and we can expect and support them to do better, but we can do so with compassion and humanity.
  7.  It’s not about me.  When I get yelled at, they aren’t really yelling at me.   When they don’t change, or stay sober, or ever get their kids back, it’s not my fault.   If I make it about me, then I get in the way of the work the families have to do.
  8. So I better take care of me.    I have a lot of feelings about the things I witness every day, and I need to know how to decompress and let go.
  9. Bad Things happen.    The only way to survive in child protection is to understand and accept this fact, and then to find motivation and strength in being the person to help put things back together, because..resilience graphic
  10. People can recover when those Bad Things happen.   I have worked with so many parents who admit that they were resentful at first, but now are grateful that their family is together and healthy and whole.     I have seen kids suffer horrific trauma, and over and over again they find a way to recover and move on.       Witnessing resilience is a great privilege, and the reason I go back, day after day.

I wrote my novels Unprotected and Unattached because I wanted to share those lessons.   My novels are available in select local book stores and at amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

Grateful

Words fail me sometimes, usually when there’s something important to say.    Tonight, on the eve of my book launch, I will try.

I am deeply grateful that a story that I wrote has been published.    Again.   Thanks to North Star press for investing in me a second time.

my book is here!

I am thrilled that my husband’s photo is the cover, and that the young woman on the cover is my daughter, Gracie.  I love to write about family–both biological and chosen–so it is only right that the cover comes from my family.

And speaking of family, I couldn’t have done this without everyone who read, critiqued and proofed multiple drafts of this book.     “Unattached” is so much better because of all the editors and cheerleaders I had along the way.

I also want to thank all the social workers out there who inspired this story.     County social work can be thankless, exhausting, and often invisible.   I write about our work because I want people to understand it.   So today, I also want to thank all my fellow county social workers for the heart and soul they put into their jobs every day.

And finally, thank you to everyone who has read “Unprotected” and will soon read “Unattached.”       Tomorrow, I will begin putting my new novel in your hands, and I will never forget what a privilege that is.

Unattached: A preview

He loved to bounce that baby boy on his knee. Never much interested in girls, he ignored their first child, a daughter with a cap of blonde fuzz and a dimple in her left cheek. His friends, annoyingly married for the past year, had finally had their boy. His boy. He caressed the baby’s head and wondered how old the little man would be before he would start spending the night with his favorite uncle.

 

           Leah Danco didn’t sleep anymore.  Not the full, doctor-recommended eight hours, anyway. Leah’s nights involved hours of fitful rolling on her aged queen-sized bed with a deep divot in the middle from years of sleeping alone.   This spring morning her insomnia had been interrupted with an ominous phone call from sheriff’s dispatch at 3:00 a.m.

          When the sun finally emerged that first Friday morning in May, Leah had already showered and was wrestling with her home-highlighted blonde frizz. If left alone, her hair would add at least two inches of fuzzy height to her barely five foot frame, so her mornings always began with the aggravation of coaxing her hair into compliance. Annoyed with the stringy, crunchy results, she switched around a few of the studs in the upper cartilage of her left ear. The studs always cooperated, so at least she could control that much of her appearance. Leah had just turned thirty-five and worried that years of hard living had taken their toll, so she took the bright spots in her appearance where she could find them.

          The best part of the day was that it was Friday. She could wear jeans. As a social worker who investigated allegations of child abuse, sometimes perks of the job were hard to find. The 3:00 a.m. phone call was from a dispatcher asking if a social worker wanted to ride along with a uniformed officer to Children’s Hospital, where a toddler was being airlifted with life-threatening abuse injuries. The interviews could wait until morning, Leah told her. It was going to be an ugly day.

          Twenty minutes later, breakfast bar and Diet Coke tucked in her giant purse, Leah stood on the steps outside of Terrance County Human Services like the soles of her hiking sandals were glued to the sidewalk.

          Going inside meant facing the day—kids who were angry, anxious or traumatized. Defensive, sobbing, or absent parents. Today, it meant finding answers and justice for a broken baby who just a few hours ago was safe and healthy and whole.

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Unattached will be available for purchase from local bookstores and kindle download September 12, 2015.

When I grow up I want to wear sensible shoes (said no one, ever)

This week my third grader was supposed to dress like she would for her career some day. She has had a few ideas in her 9 years but ultimately decided she would wear cool clothes and a tape measure around her neck–the uniform of a fashion designer.

How many 9 year olds aspire to be child protection workers? In her class there was a construction worker, a scientist, and professional balloon animal maker, but no social workers.

Child protection was never my plan either.   Until about three months before college graduation, my plan had been to go straight to grad school for psychology.   But as the graduate program catalogs piled up on my desk and my completed applications didn’t, it became clear that I wasn’t ready to go to grad school.   So a month before graduation, I took (and barely passed) the Minnesota Merit Test which would make me eligible to be a social worker in a county agency.

When I applied for my current job in child protection, I had to admit that I had never interviewed a child, never been to court, and didn’t have a clue how the system worked.   I really didn’t know that child protection existed.   It was in my plans to Help People, but that’s where my big idea ended.

Then I was hired, and within days I was interviewing children, attending court, and figuring out how this mysterious system worked.    I talked to kids about sexual abuse, and they told me things that made my stomach churn. I forced myself to be able to say all the words for genitals.     I had to confront people on their drug use, their violence, and their houses full of hoarded stuff.   I needed to wear clothes that would go from house to car easily, tromping through snow and clutter, professional but comfortable enough to make a quick getaway on the rare occasions it was necessary.

sensible shoes

I didn’t love my job, but I didn’t hate it either.   Within a year, I was married and bought a house, got a dog and I was pregnant.   We settled into our new home, and I got as comfortable as I could in a job in which people screamed, swore, and lunged at me with regularity.   There were bright spots too–the families who got stronger, the kids who were relieved to move to grandma’s home where they were finally safe, and the coworkers who laughed and groaned along with me.

And that, kids, is how a career is made.

I’m sure there are plenty of kids who dream about being a teacher, or a doctor, or a fashion designer, and they grow up to become exactly what they had planned to be.   But there are plenty of soon-to-be-grads who aren’t sure what comes next, and hopefully enough of them will want to Help People too.     And if they find themselves in child protection, somehow they will suit up in comfortable shoes, clothes that might get dirty, and enough emotional body armor to stumble into a career that they almost, sometimes love.

TOP 5 Questions I have been asked about writing a novel

1.   Are you going to quit your job and just write books?

This is probably the question I get most often, and my writer friends are laughing right now. Reading for pleasure is on the decline, and overall reading ability is declining with it.   In the era of binge-watching Netflix, social media, and youtube at your fingertips, books can’t keep up.   Even if they could, there’s very little money in book publishing for all but the handful of super successful authors.     I was very grateful to earn enough with the sales of my last book to buy a new laptop and pay for a few nights in a hotel as I traveled for book promotions. So, no. I will happily be keeping my day job.

  1. Which character are you? (or worse: Am I in your book?)

unprotected was fiction, as is my new novel unattached.   Neither of the main characters is me. The social workers, cops, foster parents, and attorneys in the book aren’t based on anyone I know.       And the clients in the book are definitely not based on any of my former clients.   Data privacy laws are strict and I didn’t want to do anything that would put me in HIPAA jail.

  1.  How did you come up with the story?

I never know how to answer this.   I wish I could say that I had a grand plan with an elaborate outline, but I didn’t have anything of the sort.   It took me 12 years to write unprotected and three years to write unattached, and both times I had only a vague idea of where I was going with the story.    The fun times were when an idea spilled out, landed on the page, and worked.

  1. Do you enjoy book signings?

I will say this as graciously as I can: no.   I expected book signings to be exciting, but the truth is that I feel like the salespeople at mall kiosks selling perfume or cell phones.   Book store customers know what they are looking for, and they recognize that I’m there to sell them something they never intended to buy.    Honestly that’s fine with me.   We all work hard for our money, and if someone doesn’t want to buy my book then I don’t want him to.    But publishing is a business, so selling books is part of the deal.   Most of the time at book signings people avoid eye contact and shuffle by my little table at the front of the store.   At one of my signings, another author was there with 3 large boxes full of books. He huffed at me that he would sell out in two hours, and the jerk was right.   He approached (accosted) everyone who entered the store saying, “Are you a mystery reader? Do you enjoy reading about local settings?”   Some people wandered away, but his pushiness worked as his pile dwindled while few of my books moved.   So I am learning to stretch myself, plaster on an uncomfortable smile, and have awkward conversations in order to sell a few books.

  1. I’ve always wanted to write a book….do you think I could get published?

I have been surprised by how many people have confessed to me that they have a secret, half-written novel on a laptop at home.   Usually when people ask me this question they are stuck either because they aren’t sure how to finish, or they don’t think what they have written is good enough.   My answer is always the same (borrowed from Dory in the movie Finding Nemo):   Just keep writing!

That's me at a book signing at the Mankato Barnes and Noble
That’s me at a book signing at the Mankato Barnes and Noble

For most of us amateur writers, the fear of it not being good enough is what keeps us from moving forward.      I’ll be honest:   there are parts of both of my books that make me cringe.   I am well aware that I will never be known for my lyrical prose, and a writing instructor would put her red pen to work with my overuse of adverbs.     Lyrical prose was never my goal.   I write because I have stories in my head that I want to get on paper, and the process of writing is what I truly enjoy.

And in that spirit, stay tuned.   My second novel, unattached, will be released in September, 2015 by North Star Press.