A Day in the Life of a CPS Social Worker: It’s a Mess
An inside report from a social worker who witnessed institutional mayhem.
I was in the passenger seat of a nondescript white van and riding through residential streets in a California suburb that ranks among the poorest cities in the country. It was my first week on the job.
My coworker agreed to take me on a ride-along of an immediate response (IR) referral—emergency situations where social workers must quickly assess the safety of children. This IR was straightforward: a local law enforcement drug task force raided the home of two known dealers and took them into custody. We were called to retrieve the children. It was an uncomplicated beginning to a bewildering experience.
Nothing Could Have Prepared Me for Working at CPS
Just a few months prior, I had graduated college and faced a world of uncertainties. I was passionate about community development and advocacy for minoritized populations, so social work seemed a good fit. I applied to a social work position for a local Child Protective Services agency as an afterthought at the urging of a relative who sent me the listing. It seemed a longshot to get a job I felt I was not qualified for.
I was still unsure of what I was getting myself into months deep into online and classroom training, which provided the background policy and legal framework existing around child welfare social work. The only practical training involved a one-day simulation, where we took turns conducting a referral investigation: knocking on the door, interviewing the parents and children, and debriefing our assessment. It did little to prepare me to navigate a labyrinthine system, office politics and poor accountability through which life-changing decisions were made.
The training did not prepare me for what would become one of many 17-hour workdays. As we parked in front of the recently raided home, my coworker offhandedly stated, “I bet they are Black,” to which I replied sheepishly, “Isn’t that a bias?” They didn’t respond. We approached a scene out of a movie, with the officers dressed in tactical gear outside eating In-N-Out, while the mother sat handcuffed in a kitchen chair near the front steps to the home. We spoke with her, noticing her of the department’s exigency to remove her children because she was in custody. We also told her about an upcoming court date where a juvenile dependency judge would decide whether the county will be taking jurisdiction of the children, and finalizing what the parents must do to receive their children back into their custody.
We then went to pick up the children from their school, turning a typical day into what would become probably the single most traumatic and defining moment of their short lives.
For me, it was just the first removal of many.
Problems With Child Protective Services
Ideally, CPS protects children by removing them from dangerous home environments. This includes parents who sexually perpetrate their children, engage in domestic violence and/or employ harsh corporal punishment leading to bruising or broken bones. Children who are placed in foster care by CPS are removed from one traumatic environment and are caught up in another one. The statistics on foster children's rate of high school dropout, drug use and homelessness causes me to pause and wonder whether the foster care system is just another government agency doing more harm than good.
One aspect contributing to this assessment is the lack of transparency in the decision to remove children, which is often made with veiled language. As workers, we are instructed to stay away from statements potentially seen as threatening. We are left to dance around the topic and can only provide vague warnings. One of my supervisors once said on a voicemail, “If we do not hear back from you, we will be forced to make decisions without you.” Any social worker knows that translates to, “If you refuse to cooperate, we are removing the children.”
On one occasion, a coworker removed a child because a legal-guardian grandmother would not kick her son—who was the father of the child—out of the home, despite not being explicitly told the consequences of allowing him to stay. It always seemed dishonest that we were forced to play coy when transparency would have made some parents realize how dire the situation was.
The Children Are the Ones Who Bear the Brunt of the Situation
The lack of transparency is not the only traumatic aspect of the system. Once removed, children were often forced to sleep overnight in our offices. The pace of finding a foster home or approving relatives for placement is glacial, sometimes taking days. The children exist in limbo, unable to go home and without a foster care bed. So, their home becomes a government office, with no kitchen, no showers and no beds. We would put them in large conference rooms and set up cots so they could sleep. It was not uncommon for children to spend the night or entire weekends in the office while awaiting placement.
A nine-year-old child on the caseload of a coworker lived in our office for three weeks—three weeks of sitting in a cubicle, three weeks of being taken to a shelter to shower, three weeks of fast-food and three weeks of sleeping on a cot. At one point, management realized we needed to take her to school, so she was enrolled. We would joke that management should put her on the payroll since she was there all day anyway.
I am still not sure about the legality of that entire scenario.
Foster Parents Aren’t Always Good Parents
But once placement was found, it would represent another disruptive point in their journey through the system. Foster parents could be notoriously unreliable and some abusive. While physical and sexual abuse within foster homes was rare—in my experience—more commonly is the mental or emotional abuse, where the children were treated as paychecks and burdens.
One foster parent demanded a specific dollar amount or threatened to refuse to keep the child in their home.
I had another foster parent tell a teenager going into her senior year of high school that he no longer wanted her there, after four years of stability. This foster parent provided various excuses regarding the child’s behavior and her lack of social engagement. It was obvious the foster parent just did not want to deal with her, and once a foster parent decided that they no longer want a child, there is nothing the agency can do to stop them. Many coworkers had foster parents drop children off at the office without forewarning, demanding they be placed elsewhere that day.
The children in foster care were never guaranteed a stable home, just one that was hopefully safer than what they came from.
CPS Workers Have Zero Accountability
The systemic troubles of Child Protective Services extended to immunity for workers and management from consequences for violating policy. Some workers had reputations for doing poor work, falsifying documentation and not visiting children on their caseload in accordance with protocol. Others were known to complete shoddy assessments that could leave children in potentially dangerous homes.
Overstepping authority was all too common. While shadowing an IR early in my career, law enforcement was called in to complete a welfare check because the man did not want to open the door to us. The man begrudgingly opened the door after law enforcement threatened him with arrest. We followed law enforcement in, which was a violation of the man’s civil rights (without a warrant, we could not enter the home without the man’s permission).
The child refused to provide a statement and the father declined to be interviewed, as well. After the incident, the father threatened to sue the department for violating his civil rights, which led the department to drop the referral against him. I wonder how many others, unfamiliar with their rights, were the victims of similar violations? The primary worker and I were never cited or reprimanded for the incident.
And, Sometimes, Workers Are Encouraged to Do the Wrong Thing
In another instance, a worker was forced by management to remove a child prior to a physician weighing in on a suspicious injury. It is policy to have injuries assessed by medical professionals who could determine whether they are accidental or not. This opinion informs our decisions to remove. I do not know why management was eager to move on this case, but they made the wrong move. Shortly after the worker was ordered to obtain a warrant detaining the child, the note from the physician came in declaring the injury accidental. The worker was told to act on the warrant anyhow, as it was already signed. The family was devastated and could not understand why the child was being taken from their custody.
The worker, knowing the decision was fraudulent, went against procedure and allowed the child to remain with their parents. The worker was threatened with being written up and demoted, and was told they were “playing with fire.”
The lack of accountability and willingness to break protocol was rampant. The decisions were made with impunity as we had no quality control or independent inspector's department assuring fair play.
The poor decision-making and willingness to cut corners was partly due to an extremely problematic office environment that treated workers as expendable, overvalued meeting quotas and benchmarks, and encouraged burnout. My office was a revolving door of social workers, with an average of two per month leaving the department. Boundaries were not encouraged: Even if you were not in the office, you were always expected to be reachable should something arise on your caseload.
As a Child Protective Services Worker, I Was Always on Call
Overworking was the norm. I regularly clocked 15-plus hour days and it was not uncommon to see workers sacrifice their days off or come in on the weekends to finish work. It was encouraged by our supervisors. I was told immediately by my new supervisor after transferring units that if I wanted to, I could come in on the weekends to finish up work. The assumption was that I would do whatever it took to help the department shed cases.
We were discouraged from taking time off. I experienced push-back when I stopped succumbing to the pressure to overwork. A supervisor ridiculed me saying, “Oh look, it’s the one who doesn’t come in on his days off.” I had a supervisor call me the day after I was discharged from the hospital due to exhaustion and dehydration to gather information about a case. I even had a supervisor tell me to take an Uber to work after my car broke down, declining my request to take the day off to deal with repairs.
This treatment was egregious given the burdensome nature of the work. Along with the emotional toll, our caseloads remained far too high to do proper social work. At 40-50 cases per worker, it was common to hear workers say, “We aren’t doing social work as much as putting out fires.” It was true, we were not doing social work, just responding to crises. The pressure to keep caseloads down fell to overtaxed workers. Despite rumors, we were not given bonuses for children removed—our reward for removals was an entire night spent in the office while awaiting placement.
The Entire System Needs to be Reevaluated
The incoming work volume made it troublesome to meet deadlines consistently. A new referral requires first contact within ten days, and we were pressured to make that deadline no matter what. I’ve seen workers pass by homes without stopping, documenting that as an attempt to speak with the family. While helping a coworker, I went to a school attempting to interview a child knowing they had been dismissed two hours prior and documented that as a contact attempt. These are not the actions of monsters indifferent about children but are desperate attempts by defeated workers to not drown. Managerial neglect facilitated an environment where best practice work was sacrificed in favor of efficiency. The result is that children and families were not served.
Child welfare is a vast institution, tasked with the difficult job of creating safety and stability for children. This noble cause can be marred when departments fail to address systemic mismanagement, poor accountability and fail to recognize the traumatic nature of the system. My experience represented one office in one state and should not be extrapolated towards every child welfare department in the country. I do believe that some of the systematic issues are widespread and prevalent; and I encourage everyone to become interested in the operations of their local child welfare agencies. These are institutions that are called to protect the most vulnerable, but they must be held accountable by the people they serve. A better future depends on it.