Sometimes, we all can make the mistake of expecting workers to be perfect. We expect them to see a situation, assess it quickly, and do exactly the right thing, to know 100% what is going on in a home. However, think of your own home. If someone, a stranger, were to walk in and observe you and your family for thirty minutes on any given day what would they see? Would it be a family smiling, happily eating dinner, and sharing details about their day away from the house in polite voices? Yes, probably sometimes that would be the case. However, at another time would it be possible to see a child throwing a tantrum, a parent unable to shower or brush their teeth due to said tantrum, and a sink full of messy dishes because said child has been having a prolonged melt down? Yes, that may be just as likely- not because you or your children are bad, but because family situations, dynamics, and daily adjustments are a fluid thing. Children and a parent’s reaction to them can be unpredictable. We all come to our jobs with skewed perspectives because the way we grew up tends to, though not always be the way we think is right. It is certainly the way we are most accustom to.
Child protection workers have a hard, hard job. They have to take calls, walk into a stranger’s house, and decide quickly if a child is in danger. They are not police officers, not medical authorities, not even counselors. Yet, they are charged with the task of making life altering, maybe even life and death decisions. Whatever they decide, it will have lasting consequences for the child. They are human. Sometimes they make mistakes, even grievous ones. Read the case below for an example, but keep in mind that investigators are nearly always people trying to help, who have taken a very draining job for generally very little pay because they see themselves making the difference in the life of a child.
‘A thousand skills’ required for DCF investigators
Title: Child Protective Investigator – CPI Duties: Conducting investigations of alleged abuse, abandonment, neglect and/or exploitation of minor children.
Requirements: College degree, willing to work weekends and holidays.
Starting salary: $34,829.34.
What it doesn’t say is that you must be willing to become embroiled in highly emotional and sometimes heartbreaking events.
“Some of these cases are extremely difficult,” said Mike Watkins, former statewide director of family safety for the Florida Department of Children and Families. “The stakes are tremendously high: the safety and well-being of children. There are a thousand skills a CPI has to have. The human dynamics are very complex.”
The case of twins Nubia and Victor Barahona, 10, has put child protective investigators in a harsh spotlight.
Today DCF Secretary David Wilkins is expected to announce some immediate changes to the way the agency operates in the wake of that horrific case.
Nubia was found dead Feb. 14 in Palm Beach County in the bed of a pickup belonging to her adoptive father, Jorge Barahona, an exterminator. Victor, covered in chemical burns, was found in critical condition at the scene. Barahona and his wife, Carmen, have been charged with murder.
Four days earlier, the Florida Abuse Hotline received a tip that the children might be in danger and DCF dispatched a protective investigator.
Andrea Fleary visited the Barahona home Feb. 10 and 11 and never saw the children or Jorge Barahona but, based on conversation with Carmen, filed a report saying the children were safe.
A special investigative panel issued a report last week accusing DCF of “fatal ineptitude.” The report focused not only on Fleary, but on numerous occasions where school personnel and a guardian ad litem expressed worry about the twins’ well-being, and how their concerns fell through the cracks.
Fleary has been suspended with pay. And questions have been raised about how such investigators are trained and do their jobs.
According to DCF, new investigators receive an eight-week course, spend five additional weeks in the field with experienced investigators and must pass exams. Full certification takes 10 months.
They must learn statutes governing child abuse allegations, policy for conducting investigations, cooperation with law enforcement, and the signs of abuse – physical and emotional.
“With physical abuse you are looking for broken bones, welts and black marks, but also too many visits to the emergency room,” said Fernando Deheza, a former DCF trainer.
“As for behavioral signs, the victim may be very timid, ashamed, afraid of the abuser,” Deheza said. “Or children will wet their beds, or stutter, or their school grades go down.”
In the twins’ case, Nubia was terrified of Carmen, and Victor had begun to stutter. Both kids had seen their grades drop. But Fleary never saw the children and had apparently never dealt with the family before Feb. 10.
According to Lissette Valdes-Valle, a DCF spokeswoman in Miami-Dade County, 95 abuse investigators answer on average 15 calls per month and have 18 to 25 investigations open at any time.
In Palm Beach County, 71 investigators also average 15 new cases per month. They currently have 1,715 open cases, or an average caseload of 24, but some investigators have more.
That is twice as high as the 12 cases recommended by the Child Welfare League of America. The county has more than a dozen positions now open, but even if they were filled the caseload would still exceed the recommendation.
“It’s a lot,” Valdes-Valle said. “And they haven’t gotten a raise in five years, not even cost of living.”
In other words, investigators are underpaid and overworked.
Calls to the Florida Abuse Hotline are referred to investigators in two categories – those that require an immediate response and those that can be answered within 24 hours. The twins’ case was mistakenly put in the less-urgent category, and Fleary arrived several hours later.
On her first visit, no one answered the door. She returned the next day and spoke to Carmen Barahona, but not the twins or Jorge.
“You are supposed to make diligent efforts and daily checks to find the victim,” said Kimberley Welles, DCF regional family safety program manager.
“If you know your child is in immediate danger and you can’t find them, you go to your supervisors. You call law enforcement.
“Once the victim is located, depending on the age of the child, you engage them with basic interview techniques,” Welles said. “If there are physical abuse allegations, we would talk to them about that. We try to be very sensitive because kids get nervous and embarrassed. We try to talk to the children away from their parents. Then we talk with family members, parents, siblings.”
A child safety assessment is completed within 24 hours. It uses a scoring system to measure risk factors. Those include injuries, but also threats to the child because of excessive discipline, exposure to drugs, exposure to possible sexual abuse or neglect.
Investigators also evaluate the caregivers’ mental stability and possible drug use. They try to determine whether caregivers respond honestly to questions and how they speak to or about the child. They also try to discern if domestic abuse exists, because children in such settings are more likely to be abused.
If the investigation indicates immediate danger, the child can be removed from the caregivers. If not, remedial steps are recommended – such as intervention by caseworkers, having an offending caregiver leave the home or having the child and a non-offending caregiver move elsewhere.
Investigators say removing a child from a home where adequate cause doesn’t exist is wrong because it causes serious disruption of families and more harm than good.
Watkins said many investigations are easy because it is soon clear if there is immediate danger or no danger.
“But anyone who has ever been a child abuse investigator or supervisor has run across cases where it is unclear what to do,” he said. “There are cases where you know something has occurred, but the people in all likelihood are being deceptive. You may not be able to prove it. Contradicting evidence exists that makes it extremely difficult to make a decision.”
For example, according to DCF, the twins’ case involved contradictory information provided by school personnel, a psychologist and a guardian ad litem, and also deception on the part of the Barahonas.
Watkins said an investigator has to walk into a home and make decisions that could be life-and-death.
“There is tremendous pressure on the first responder in determining that the child can remain there safely,” he said. “Even when you do everything right, there is an element of risk. You are talking about a tremendously difficult task.”