a critical look at the child welfare system

Defensive Social Work

“I would like the caseworkers to err on the side of protecting the children,” said Nicholas Scoppetta, the former prosecutor named by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to revamp the troubled New York City agency after the tragic and avoidable death of Elisa Izquierdo.

Shortly after her death made headlines, defensive social work took hold in New York City, and removals of children from their homes skyrocketed.

What is defensive social work?

A Brooklyn judge, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained to a New York Times reporter:

It’s classic cover-your-rear-end behavior by people who are either genuinely frightened or cynical. I don’t know if they are servicing people better, but all of a sudden, I have tons of cases, cases that they would not have normally filed.

Said Jane Spinak, head of the Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Project: “They are bringing many, many more cases into court. The question is whether they are cleaning up their act or whether, to protect themselves, they are shifting the burden of responsibility to the judges.”

According to Faye Moore, a senior official with the Social Services Employees Union Local 371: “People are working not to make mistakes, and that may not necessarily be in the best interests of the children. How so? Unnecessary removals.”[1]

But needless and traumatic removals would appear to have long been the rule, rather than the exception in New York City.

According to one former child protective worker, the “classic cover-your-rear-end behavior” spoken of by the Brooklyn juvenile court judge was specifically taught at the New York City Training Academy.

Former New York City child protective caseworker Lisa Clampitt explained: “They would literally say it all through training: You have to cover your ass. Everyone’s going to try and dump work on you and get you in trouble.”[2]

Says former New York City caseworker Marc Parent: “Our thing was go out, see if the kid’s safe. If the kid’s safe, leave him. If the kid’s not safe, take him. If you’re not sure, take him.”[3]

If you’re not sure, take him?


Douglas Besharov refers to needless removals of children as “defensive social work.” It would appear that the unconscionable practice of removing a child to protect a career, or to prevent liability is quite common. Besharov explains:

The dynamic is simple enough to understand: negative media publicity and a lawsuit are always possible if the child is subsequently killed or injured; but there will be no critical publicity if it turns out that intervention was unneeded, and much less chance of a lawsuit. Joanne Selinske, formerly director of the American Public Welfare Association’s child abuse project, characterized this approach as the “‘better safe than sorry’ attitude that permeates the child protection system.”[4]

The former NCCAN director adds that while no one knows exactly how much defensive social work goes on, there is no denying “that it affects all aspects of child protective decision making.”

Besharov continues, citing a program director who described what happened after the was indicted for “allowing” a child to be killed:

Upon learning of the indictments, caseworkers and their supervisors became aware of their own vulnerability. As a result, paperwork increased to account for everyone’s actions and for a while more children were removed from their homes. Supervisors told me that these removals seemed unnecessary but that caseworkers were afraid.[5]


Just how prevalent the practice is may be indicated by an Illinois study conducted in 1994 by the Child Welfare Institute. The study found that one third of a sample group of foster children were in placement not for reasons of abuse or neglect, but for reasons of caseworker protection.

A Chicago Tribune reporter estimated that as many as 14,000 children in Illinois may be in placement as a direct result of this unspoken policy.[6]

These figures may well represent the tip of the iceberg.

Diane Redleaf, formerly of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago estimated that between 25 and 50 percent of children in foster care in Illinois could safely be returned to their homes if proper services were provided.

Benjamin Wolf, who filed a landmark suit against the Illinois child welfare agency, estimates that between 55 to 90 percent could safely be returned home, an estimate he said was based on comments made to him off-the-record by system insiders.[7]

The needless removal of children from their homes has long been documented, and is so prevalent that it is often accepted as a reasonable consequence of child protective activities.

“Child protective staff fear errors, especially the failure to take endangered children into care, and the subsequent public response to deaths or severe abuse and neglect,” observed Sheila Kamerman and Alfred Kahn of the Columbia University School of Social Work.[8]

“Social workers may more quickly–but prematurely–remove children from troubled families rather than risk being sued on behalf of an abused child,” notes Yale Law School Professor Peter Schuck.[9]

Leroy Schultz, social work professor at the University of West Virginia conducted a survey of child protective caseworkers, finding at least one worker who “tries to get state custody of all suspected abused children just to protect herself from liability.”[10]

Evidently, there are many other child protective caseworkers just like her.

In Florida, one social worker was so quick to tear children away from their homes that he was given the nickname “Cap’n Hook.” It is a title he wore with pride, and he was reportedly admired by his fellow caseworkers.[11]


What of legislative efforts to protect children against the harm inflicted by the countless caseworkers like Cap’n Hook and the one Schultz identified?

Invariably, efforts at imposing civil liability against caseworkers for wrongful removals of children from their homes have been met with tremendous resistance.

One such amendment, proposed in Missouri, would have imposed penalties for removing a child without a strong case to support abuse. The amendment was defeated by a House vote of 78-48.[12]

Nor have the courts adopted a position favorable to the innocent families and children impacted by these needless interventions. A 1996 Michigan Court of Appeals decision held that families cannot sue caseworkers for wrongful removals of children, holding that it would impede the investigation of abuse by social workers.

The suit was filed by a family whose children had been kept in foster care for four years before being returned to them.[13]

Not even the Congress is able to stem the tide of wrongful removals. Nearly a decade after the passage of the Adoption Assistance Act, which was intended, in part, to address the problem of needless placements, the Congress held hearings aptly entitled Programs and Services Designed to Prevent Unnecessary Foster Care Placement. The Ways and Means Committee determined that needless removals remain a major concern.[14]


Like many other fields of work, child welfare seems to have its own peculiar vocabulary to describe wrongful removals of children from their homes. Industry professionals invariably call this “erring on the side of the child.”

So prevalent is the use of this term to deflect criticism over wrongful removals that one may wonder if courses in child protective apologetics might be taught in some training centers.

Just as needless removals of children skyrocketed in New York after the reports of Elisa Izquierdo made headlines, removals skyrocketed in Utah after the National Center for Youth Law sued the state over its treatment of children in foster care.

“We saw a dramatic increase” in removals, said Suzanne Timmerman of the Division of Child and Family Services. “Workers are afraid of making a mistake and would rather err on the side of caution.”

“We do believe the lawsuit has heightened awareness that if it’s a really difficult judgment call, we need to err on the side of protection of the child, which means removal,” said Robin Arnold-Williams, director of the Department of Human Services.[15]

The effects in Utah have been similar to those of reform efforts elsewhere. Increased spending and the hiring of more intake workers have resulted in more needless removals, and foster care placements have increased. Hence, conditions for these children are worse than they were prior to the reform effort.

In a 1996 case, Los Angeles officials took five of seven children into custody, based in part on a dream one of the children recounted during questioning.

The case stemmed from an entry into the families home by an intruder. Even after the father had captured the intruder, and evidence had been found by police linking him to the crime, the children were kept in foster care for three weeks.

County social workers then coerced the family into signing an agreement to have the entire family attend counseling sessions in exchange for the return of their children.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich called for an investigation, saying the case “raises questions with regard to the powers exercised by the Department of Children and Family Services.”

Betsy Azariah, a children’s services administrator, disagreed, saying that she had reviewed the case and found no irregularities. Asked if caseworkers might have overreacted, Azariah said, “We always err on the side of caution.”[16]

Sound familiar?

Does it ever occur to caseworkers who employ defensive social work that they are hurting the very children they are supposed to protect? Do they recognize the trauma they inflict when they remove a child from a loving family, tossing him into the home of strangers?

Journalist Richard Wexler examined these and similar questions, determining that for the most part, they don’t. Wexler explained:

The answer is, I think, that child savers live in a foster-care fantasyland. They see in front of them children living in poverty, perhaps with a struggling single parent, and they fantasize that they can take the children away and place them in a nice middle-class suburban home with two cars, two dogs, and two parents.[17]

Bruce Boyer, supervising attorney for the Children and Family Justice Center of Northwest Law School has represented many Illinois children, parents and families in abuse and neglect cases.

“The DCFS caseworker who doesn’t try hard enough to get into the home, to do an investigation that subsequently gets front page in the news, gets hung out to dry,” says Boyer.

“On the other hand, there are a set of harms that follow a kid in foster care even if they are treated as well as the foster care system is capable of treating them. For those kinds of harms there is no mechanism for holding decision makers accountable; the only person who suffers is the child.”[18]

“The urge is to remove kids and ask questions later,” says Gail Smith, executive director of Chicago Legal Aid to Incarcerated Mothers.

“This floods the system,” says Smith, creating cases such as that of Amanda Wallace, in which a child was inappropriately returned to an abusive mother. “One overwhelmed caseworker can misidentify a serious case.”[19]

Benjamin Wolf, of the Illinois Civil Liberties Union, describes the impact of defensive social work on the Illinois foster care population: “Permanancy planning declined while the DCFS population exploded… the number of cases closed dropped off the table. In 1987, DCFS had 14,000 cases; in 1994, they had 45,000. It’s disastrous.”[20]

Just as in New York and Utah, there was a precipitating series of events that triggered the massive increase in removals of children from their homes in Illinois.

These events were the Wallace case, which demonstrated the widespread breakdown in the Department of Children and Family Services, and the Keystone case, which involved related mothers whose children were removed, and whose parental rights were terminated for reasons of poverty.

In Illinois, unnecessary or not, foster care placements are often permanent. Says Benjamin Wolf: “After Joey Wallace and Keystone, no kid went home.”

In Canada, Judge Thomas Gove was appointed to head an inquiry into the death of Matthew Vaudreuil, a little boy who was killed by his mother while he was under the watchful eye of the British Columbia child protection system. Over the next 18 months, the Gove Inquiry studied the policies and practices of the child protection system and other services provided to children and youth. A subsequent report on the British Columbia child protection system issued in 2006 explains:

A perhaps unintended result of the inquiry itself was a shift in child protection practice towards removing more children from their homes rather than offering support so that families could stay together: feeling attacked by the adverse publicity surrounding the inquiry, social workers were afraid of leaving children in situations where there was any possibility that they might come to harm.[21]