Caseworkers aren’t our allies

April 26, 2011

THIS IS a reply to the article "Criminalizing caregivers." The author of the article implies we as socialists and progressives should support child welfare workers because they're "unionized workers." However, police are often unionized as well--should we support their negligence?

The author also asserts that caseworkers work under stressful conditions and are held to "high standards for success." Really? As both a former child welfare prosecutor and now a defense attorney with nearly 14 years experience in the child welfare system, I haven't seen much evidence of such "high standards."

First, "front-line caseworkers" are not "caregivers" at all. They provide no care and no services--they are instead charged with investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect. They do so on behalf of a racist government which doesn't "care" about alleviating the causes of child neglect in the first place.

Second, caseworkers are largely immune from lawsuits due to their negligence, except in the most extreme situations. "Mistakes" are often errors on the side of ripping mostly Black and Latino children away from their mostly poor parents. Caseworkers then know they can rely on judges who in turn usually err on the side of being conservative in their rulings, together with (in New York at least) a public defender system which is woefully underfunded and nearly completely unsupervised.

The result is families that don't get the help they need and children psychologically scarred from the experience--indeed, children placed in foster care have a higher chance of being abused or neglected than if left with their families.

Indeed, the child welfare system has such low standards that most caseworkers are not actual certified social workers, and yet they are called upon to make snap judgments about pulling a child away from his/her parents.

Moreover, the same argument could be made to apply to the police (supposed "high levels of training" and "stressful work conditions"). Should socialists and progressives support cops when they commit acts of negligence or brutality? I think not.

I agree wholeheartedly with one of the aims of the article in that the blame being placed on the caseworkers is meant to distract from the blame that should also be placed on the inept system itself.

There indeed are systemic failures of the child welfare system, just as there are systemic failures of the law enforcement system (a decent resource on the former subject may be found in the book The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care). Nonetheless, this doesn't mean negligent caseworkers shouldn't been held to account in the same way negligent cops should be held to account.

And contrary to what the author strongly implies, I adamantly disagree with placing child welfare workers, who are one step removed from being cops, on a par with teachers and other city workers. They are active supporters of a system which does not help the largely minority families it interacts with.

In the end, the child welfare system is a lie. The system doesn't care in the least about the welfare of the Black and Latino children it throws into foster care. It always has been and remains a system of control on a par with the criminal injustice system.

One day in family court would quickly reveal this, as the overwhelming number of cases (90-95 percent) filed in New York City charge parents with child neglect, not child abuse--and many of such cases wouldn't have been filed in the first place but for the poverty of the parents on the one hand, and the inadequacies of social welfare programs on the other.

We as socialists and progressives do indeed need to fight for radical reforms of the child welfare system. Implying that we should team up with caseworkers as supposed allies in this fight sends a wrong message.
David Bliven, New York City

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