A Critical Look At the Child Welfare System
Falsification of Records
Caseworkers often are caught in a Catch-22 situation, where
they would have to doctor paperwork or have to acknowledge
that they are not doing their job.
Benjamin Wolf -- American Civil Liberties Union
FALSIFICATION OF RECORDS
In southwest Florida, a supervisor of child-abuse investigators instructed several caseworkers to falsify reports to improve his unit's performance numbers, according to a 1991 Health and Rehabilitative Services Inspector General report.
In Broward County, state records show some child-abuse investigators were also lying about their cases. The investigators, many in an evening unit that tended to get the most dire cases, sometimes failed to visit reported child victims for up to a year. They never interviewed key witnesses, and decided without enough information whether or not children suffered abuse.
Worse, some supervisors were aware of these problems and failed to take corrective action.
Investigators in Dade and Broward Counties, along with southwest Florida "have been caught faking and mishandling investigative reports."
Notes the Miami Herald in part of an ongoing series: "This indicates an endemic problem. And, in fact, similar reports have implicated HRS offices elsewhere."
What are the effects of all of this on the children the caseworkers are supposed to be protecting? According to the May 24 edition of the Miami Herald, the results are devastating:In 1994, a teen who spent most of her life in foster care or shelter homes filed suit against the Florida agency, charging that years of neglect left her mentally and physically scarred.
Even though HRS is supposed to be monitoring his welfare, 14-month-old Courtney Sims is beaten for three months in a relative's home in Lauderhill. Two people warn that the child is in trouble, but the counselor supervising his care reports he is "doing fine." In October, he dies after being slammed into a metal door. Twice in 1991, HRS is told a Miami man is beating his children. Twice, police say, HRS investigators take too long to show up, then dismiss the complaints. In December, the man's infant son, Akeem Oats, dies of a beating. A child-abuse investigator in Broward gets a report in June that a man is sexually assaulting his 11-year-old niece. The investigator does nothing. By the time HRS finally sends another investigator out in November, the girl has been raped.
The girl's story of beating, torture and starvation at a foster home, rejection, intimidation, and allegations of sexual abuse at others, was chronicled in a 1993 Tampa Tribune series called "Nobody's Child," in which she is identified only as Jane.
In 1979, Jane was beaten, burned, tied to a bed and nearly starved to death at one foster home. A Health and Rehabilitative Services investigator would conclude that her caseworker either condoned the abuse or falsified visitation records.
"It's a horror story, not unlike many I've heard," said HRS Secretary Jim Towey.
Do these narratives represent isolated cases? Sadly, falsification of visitation records, case histories, and even evidence would appear to be more the rule than the exception among many child protective services caseworkers. And the problem is not limited to Florida.
In South Carolina, the supervisor of the Aiken County Child Protective Services unit, along with the supervisor of the County Treatment Unit were arrested and charged with falsifying the records surrounding the removal of Krystal Scurry and her brother from their home.
A total of six Social Services workers, including the County Director of Foster Care, would eventually be charged in connection with the case. The multiple charges would include ethics violations, falsification of records, neglect of duty and embezzlement.
None of this would have come to light had two-year-old Krystal Scurry not been raped and murdered at the hands of the foster mother's son--after having endured a year of physical abuse at the hands of her foster mother.
Krystal Scurry was one of five foster children killed in South Carolina foster homes between February 1991 and January 1992. 
CULTURE OF LIES
In Louisiana, a 1992 case involved child protective caseworker Paula Bennett and her supervisor Sheryl George. They were charged with misrepresenting facts concerning interviews with the plaintiff's children and the existence of crucial evidence, and of lying to a judge and the District Attorney.
The caseworkers claimed immunity from prosecution, but the Court of Appeals held that: "Any reasonable state actor employed in a capacity which embraces law enforcement would surely realize that misrepresenting or concealing facts to judges or prosecutors is a violation of the accuseds' guaranteed rights under the United States Constitution."
Sometimes, child protective workers don't even bother to falsify their records. They simply don't maintain any.
In February of 1994, the state of Massachusetts terminated its contract La Alianza Hispana, a private agency that was supposed to be monitoring a Roxbury mother who allegedly scalded her 4-year-old son by plunging his hands into boiling liquid.
In at least nine of 17 cases reviewed by officials, families that should have been visited at least once a month by Alianza social workers had not been visited for a year, according to Massachusetts Department of Social Services Commissioner Linda Carlisle.
According to a source familiar with the investigation, Alianza was unable to produce any records for four families it was supposed to be monitoring. Carlisle also said Alianza case workers falsified reports, claiming to have visited some families when they had not.
A team of Department of Social Services officials reviewing the private agencies work reportedly wrote "outrageous" and "This is scary!" on some of their reports.
In 1996, DSS commissioner Carlisle overhauled a Boston Department of Social Services office that lost track of two young boys under its watch who ended up dead, taking the unusual steps of firing a social worker and her supervisor and demoting two managers.
An internal review found that the social worker assigned to the case had filed no reports or records about the family, and had failed to enter any notations for any other family under her supervision for several months. Her supervisor did not review her casework, and had completed only six of the 360 quarterly reviews for which he was responsible.
At one point, about 40 employees came to the commissioner's office urging leniency. After Carlisle proceeded with the firings, union officials protested.
So, too, did union officials protest the terminations of child protective caseworkers in a similar case in Illinois, where two caseworkers with the Department of Children and Family Services were charged with falsifying records in child-abuse cases and failing to make home visits that might have saved the lives of two children who later were murdered.
Hattie Roland was indicted by a Cook County grand jury on 63 counts of official misconduct and charged with failing to file reports, falsifying reports, failing to provide protective services and failing to make monthly family visits.
Diane Henton was indicted on eight counts of official misconduct on charges of closing a case improperly, failing to report abuse and failing to provide protective services.
Before being fired, both of the caseworkers had been promoted to supervisory positions.
A leader of the union that represents the Illinois department workers said that if the employees are being indicted for failing to adequately protect abused children, then "every single DCFS worker is guilty."
Said outspoken Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy: "They lie, and they do it all the time. They can do this because there is nobody to scrutinize them. They are above the law."
In a remarkably similar case, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the firing of a caseworker who had falsified case records claiming that three girls she was supposed to monitoring were: "doing fine and have adjusted well to placement with the maternal grandmother."
In reality, the siblings had died months earlier in a fire that gutted their apartment, leaving their grandmother severely burned.
A spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which had successfully defended caseworker Vera DuBose in earlier proceedings, called the ruling a bad precedent for other cases involving agencies that drag their feet in disciplining workers.
Children's rights experts said that the case reflected larger problems at DCFS that were especially prevalent in the early 1990s, and agency critics said the case shed light on a "culture of lying" at DCFS.
Said Benjamin Wolf, the ACLU attorney who had successfully sued the agency to implement reforms in 1988: "Caseworkers often are caught in a Catch-22 situation, where they would have to doctor paperwork or have to acknowledge that they are not doing their job."
Like her companion workers in Cook County, DuBose had been promoted to a $34,000 investigators position shortly after filing the false progress report on the girls.
Her promotion proved to be her undoing when the caseworker assigned to replace her visited the girl's residence, only to discover a burned-out shell. Neighbors told him the girls had died in the fire.
A year later, she was still on the job. It took DCFS that long to make its decision to fire her.
Around this time, another DCFS caseworker was convicted of lying to a judge in a case in which an infant had died.
Ahmad Muhammad told a Cook County Juvenile Court judge that a cocaine-addicted mother had completed her court-ordered drug treatment and parenting classes. On the basis of his testimony, the judge halted state monitoring of the woman. Six months later, she was charged with fatally beating her infant son while under the influence of cocaine.
Testimony at Muhammad's contempt trial revealed that he had never called the woman's drug-abuse counselor to check on her progress.
Just like his co-worker, a year later Muhammad was still on the job as a DCFS caseworker, notwithstanding that by this time it had come to light that he had a criminal conviction involving armed robbery, larceny and forgery in another state.
Ed McManus, a DCFS spokesman, said the agency had no prohibition against hiring someone with a criminal record, unless the crime involved child abuse, and that lying on a job application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
"We take it seriously, but we need good people, and we're not going to throw away a good person without a careful review," he said.
FROM WHITE-OUT TO WHITEWASH
In Utah, after months of speculation about an alleged "whitewash" of wrongdoing in the Moab office of the Division of Child and Family Services, officials released drafts of an internal investigation that was "less heavily edited" than one which had been previously released to the public.
The investigation by the Bureau of Service Review began in September 1995, when Assistant Attorney General Kenton Goodwill provided Human Services officials with 58 items that he considered as problems in the Moab office.
Goodwill suggested in his list of complaints that staffers were deliberately not closing cases once the court discharged them in order to inflate caseloads. While the audit did verify that some cases were not closed, it did not conclusively determine why.
The investigative report verified that some treatment plans were falsified by having been backdated, interviews with children were not timely or were inadequate, and children in state custody were sometimes not visited for several months.
The report concluded: "This problem also is not isolated to the Moab office. Previously, the bureau has identified this issue as a statewide problem."
The extent to which some individuals with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo is perhaps best illustrated by the outcome of this case.
In 1997, Sherianne Cotterell, a member of a three-member monitoring panel overseeing the State's compliance with a recent lawsuit, resigned citing job stress as a key factor.
Cotterell's role in writing reports critical of agency compliance and in pursuing information about the audit being kept secret in Moab led to death threats against her.
By 1998, a member of the monitoring panel said the number of children who have been compromised while the settlement languished was "mind-boggling."
Pam Rasmussen said the division has reshuffled people but not terminated incompetent employees, and that some workers continue to fabricate paperwork.
Apparently, they weren't very clever at how they it either. "I mean, if you're documenting something from 1997, don't use a '98 form. That goes to show they're not even thinking that through. They're fudging the documents," said Rasmussen.
In Texas, a Grand Jury was convened in Tom Green County in November of 1987. The Jury was charged with the task of investigating the regional Child Protective Services division of its Department of Human Services. Among the Jury's findings:
The Grand Jury also found that management in one regional office has failed to correct inadequacies "although they have been aware that problems have existed for two to three years." Among the recommendations put forth by the Grand Jury:
That false entries into records at DHS have been made in violation of the law That the system that exists appears to encourage inaccurate or false recordkeeping with no system of verificationThat the Commissioner of DHS determine whether inaccurate or false recordkeeping, though in violation of law and policy, is nevertheless being practiced statewide, at worker and management levels . . .In 1992, an attorney with the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services alleged that she was instructed by her supervisor to proceed on a parental rights termination case, even though she felt there were no grounds to pursue the case.
She first wrote letters to general counsel of the Department, claiming that there were ethical problems and possible due process violations in the case.
Some time later, she was told by a Department employee that the caseworker assigned to the case had been instructed to alter the case record.
Her efforts to expose the possible misrepresentations and due process violations included discussions with her supervisor, the State Bar of Texas, the trial court and opposing counsel in the case, as well as the Office of the Inspector General.
Thereafter, she filed a Whistleblower lawsuit alleging that she had been retaliated against by her supervisor for her efforts in exposing the possible misrepresentations, also filing a claim that a former supervisor in the Texas Department of Human Services had falsified time records.
The suit would never go to trial, as it was dismissed on procedural grounds, but the problems suggested by this case would appear to be widespread.
In May of 1990, the Regional Director of Protective Services in the Arlington region of Texas distributed an internal memorandum to CPS Program Directors and Supervisors. The subject of the memorandum: "Alternations, Backdating and Reconstruction of Case Records."
The memorandum detailed some of the methods employed by child protective caseworkers to falsify case records and service plans: "There should be absolutely no changes made to the service plans by use of white-out, correction tape, adding information or backdating.
"If part of a case record has been lost or a particular service plan was not done, do not reconstruct the plans and back date the plans with the date that the plan was actually due."
The memorandum concludes: "It is important to remember that whether or not there was a deliberate attempt to falsify, backdate or alter a case, it does indicate alteration of a case record which is considered to be a public record and may result in legal or personnel consequence, up to one including dismissal."
The problem of backdating forms to render the appearance of being in compliance is not limited to Texas. In New York City, a 1989 audit conducted by the Office of the Comptroller determined that in more than one in five cases studied, caseworkers had falsified records "by altering dates and backdating forms" in order to appear to be in compliance with deadlines that had actually been missed--sometimes by years.
In California, seven Los Angeles County social service employees were fired or disciplined in 1995 when children under their jurisdiction were fatally abused by parents or caretakers, according to a confidential report requested by county supervisors.
The report examines the homicides of a dozen children whose families had at some point been under investigation for child abuse or neglect. Eight of the children were under the supervision of the county Department of Children and Family Services when they died.
In one case, the department investigation found that when the child's social worker went on leave, a supervisor failed to reassign the case and falsified records. As a result, the child was "not seen or assessed for six months prior to his death."
Some years earlier in California, the 1988-89 San Diego County Grand Jury examined several cases, one of which involved a six-year-old girl had been removed from her home on allegations of excessive punishment on the part of her parents.
During her first ten months in placement, the girl had experienced eight changes in placement. The child was then sent out of the State with incomplete paperwork. When that placement failed, she was returned to San Diego without a definite plan for foster care. After three weeks in San Diego, her parents had still not been notified of her return. By this time, the girl had been in foster care for two and a half years.
The Grand Jury observed "inaccurate statements in the social worker's report that were not corrected," noting that the social worker further delayed resolution of the case by failing to communicate with personnel regarding court orders.
In another case the Grand Jury examined, discrepancies were found between police and medical reports, and the caseworker's continuing written account, in which she indicated suspicions against a grandmother that were contrary to all available evidence.
Yet another case involved "conflicting statements between the school personnel and the social worker's report regarding the dates the abuse occurred and was reported."
Three years later, another Grand Jury conducted a comprehensive investigation of the San Diego County child welfare system, interviewing hundreds of system professionals, examining thousands of pages of documents, observing nearly one hundred juvenile dependency cases and listening to one month of sworn testimony.
According to a letter addressed to the Chairman of the Public Safety Committee, the San Diego Grand Jury had:seen repeated episodes of social worker perjury in court reports, and indeed, even in court testimony;The Grand Jury offered 92 recommendations, including that the Board of Supervisors seek legislative changes in the immunity provisions which insulated social workers against accountability.
heard testimony of social workers lying to adoptive parents about the past history of children available for adoption;
read numerous Social Study reports written by social workers and filled with innuendo, half truths and lies;
seen documented evidence of social workers conspiring to place children for adoption with their own family members even while reunification with natural family members was in process.
FRAUD, COERCION, PERJURY, COVER-UPS AND LIES
In 1996, Florida State Senator John Ostalkiewicz called for a full-scale investigation of the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services after hearing testimony from parents and experts, all of whom told horror stories of child abuse investigations mismanaged by the state agency.
"We need a full-scale investigation of this department, with subpoena power," he told a cheering audience at the Orange County Administration Center.
"What we're hearing about here is fraud, coercion, perjury, cover-ups and lies," he said. "It's time for this stuff to come to an end."
The most compelling testimony came from Glades County Chief Deputy Circuit Court Clerk Richard Blackwell, chairman of the HRS District 8 Human Rights Advocacy Committee, a volunteer advocacy group that investigates client complaints against HRS.
Blackwell told of his firsthand knowledge of the agency's misdeeds. His examples dated from 1991 to August 1995 and included the killing of a baby girl. Although neighbors told the media the baby's family had been reported for abuse several times, HRS workers denied it, Blackwell said.
When an HRS employee found records of those previous reports, agency workers secretly destroyed them, he said.
"Documents were being altered, shredded," testified Charlotte Kay, a former HRS employee who watched the destruction of the documents. "It went on and on and on . . . It was nothing but a cover-up."
The Massachusetts Department of Social Services finally admitted something many of its critics have long suspected -- that the department validates cases without even a cursory examination.
State social workers are filing abuse complaints against parents without interviewing them or their children, and then claiming in letters to the parents that family interviews were part of the investigation supporting the abuse charge.
The admission followed a decision to reverse an abuse claim against a doctor who was accused of neglect when she left her two young children unattended for less than two minutes in a locked car.
She was sent a letter 10 days after the incident informing her the charge of neglect against her was supported "after visiting with you and your children and talking to other people who know your family." The social worker had not talked to any of the people she cited and the doctor had been vacationing with her family in Colorado at the time.
Falsifications such as these represent only the more overt practice of the art of deception, and cases such as these indicate fundamental problems in the child welfare system.
When caseworkers inflate their caseloads to increase or maintain government funding, or to justify inadequate response to crisis situations; when investigators falsify visitation records; when caseworkers falsify records to justify wrongful removals; and when supervisors ignore or encourage their deception, it is real children who suffer.
These children endure continued, and sometimes fatal abuse at the hand of heartless parents, foster parents and caretakers. Hundreds of thousands of children endure separation from loving families as they continue to "languish in inappropriate placements, with scarce hope of returning to their families or being adopted," all hope of a brighter future having been stripped away from them.
Copyright © 1997 - 2002, Rick Thoma
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Last Updated June 6, 1998