by Fay Moore © 2012
The protective services supervisor eyed the stack of telephone and fax referrals on her desk. There were more than one hundred forms she would have to go through before she could go home. It didn’t matter that the state office dictated she attend meetings all day. The new federal mandates, that tied federal funding for the state’s programs for children to measurable behaviors, said the supervisor had to read all referrals daily and accept or decline a case for investigation before departing for the day.
Ever since the economy tanked, the governor was forced to cut positions in children’s services and other departments to balance budgets. No one working under the supervisor had received a raise in pay in four years. Employees quit frequently. Positions went unfilled due to hiring freezes. Social workers charged with protecting abused children found themselves with caseloads of 30, 40, 50 families. With 40 hours in a typical work week, dysfunctional families were lucky to get 30 minutes of the social worker’s attention. The rest of the time, the social worker was completing government-mandated forms or attending court hearings or documenting treatment plan progress in the case record.
The supervisor glanced at the form in her hands. The information was sketchy at best. An anonymous caller to the hotline said she was worried about the child down the street. The child named Alyssa was thin and seemed sad all the time. She didn’t see the child often. Nevertheless, the caller felt something was wrong. She wanted someone to call on the family to make sure the child was okay.
“There’s not enough here to go on,” said the supervisor. “It doesn’t meet the legal definition of abuse or neglect.” She denied the caller’s request for an investigation.
Interestingly, the next referral form the supervisor read was about the same child. This time the referral came from the school teacher, a mandatory reporter for suspicions of abuse or neglect. The report said a six-year-old girl named Alyssa told a classmate that she was hungry, that she didn’t have breakfast at home. The child qualified for the free lunch program at school. She ate lunch at school daily. The teacher observed small bruises on the child’s legs and arms. The teacher noted that the bruises could be consistent with active play on the playground at school.
“It’s not a crime to be poor. Her family may not have the money for breakfast. The bruises can be explained,” remarked the supervisor. She felt sorry for the child, but denied the mandatory request for an investigation.
Over the course of a month, a couple more reports were called in on Alyssa, but there was nothing specific that matched the legal criteria to open a case. Each time the vague reports were filed away, the investigation requests denied by the supervisor.
Finally, one Saturday morning, the supervisor sat at home reading the paper as she drank her morning cup of coffee. She flipped to the obituaries to see if there was anyone listed she recognized. There was a short article beside the obituary of a child named Alyssa. The article stated that the police had arrested the child’s father on manslaughter charges after the child died in the local emergency room. Physicians diagnosed the child as dying from complications of starvation.