A shroud of secrecy

The issue is confidentiality, not CPS workers

Our Dec. 16 cover story, “Ripped apart at the seams,” by Meredith J. Cooper, has gotten a lot of reader response, most of it favorable but some not. Unfortunately, the negative comments were not publishable as submitted, so I’ve chosen to mention them here.

In an e-mail message, a man whose wife formerly worked for a child protective services agency calls the article “remarkably slanted” and “a serious insult to the really difficult and important work done by the people who work in child protective services.

“They have little recourse against such misguided reporting because of confidentiality,” he continues, “but if my wife’s experience was representative—and I have no reason to think it wasn’t—their work was badly misrepresented in that piece.”

Another writer says she’s a “previous foster child and previous adopted child” as well as a former CPS worker for 10 years who is “tired of uninformed people taking pot shots at CPS workers who are underpaid, overworked and cannot speak out on their own behalf.

“The world of child abuse is a sickening, violent, disturbing and secret place,” she continues. “CPS workers who have to wipe blood off children’s bodies, remove them from lice infested motel rooms and listen (again and again) to a child disclose being raped by a stepfather, or how it feels to see their mother beaten, don’t deserve to be vilified.”

She accuses the story of “inflaming the public’s outrage about a system most of them know nothing about” and insists that CPS workers “should be thanked for the work they do, not excoriated in the press.”

What these writers say about CPS workers is absolutely true. They do extremely difficult but necessary work. Just as important, they’re in a no-win situation. If they judge a family wrongly and a child dies because of it, they get the blame. On the other hand, if they remove children from their families and put them into the troubled foster-care system, they can do more damage than if they leave them at home.

Both writers mention the biggest problem in the system without addressing it: confidentiality. And that’s what Meredith’s story was really about—not whether individual CPS workers are good people doing a difficult but necessary job, but whether the process should be cloaked in secrecy.

That’s why we were happy to hear from Richard Wexler, who authored the Guest Comment in last week’s issue (“Reforming child-removal practices,” Dec. 23). He’s the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a group that has studied the CPS system from a civil-liberties perspective and concluded that its confidentiality provisions do little to protect children.

I encourage readers to explore the group’s website (www.nccpr.org). There you’ll find not only a well-reasoned critique of the system, but also commonsensical proposals for reforming it that would benefit not only children and their families, but also everyone else involved in the system, including CPS workers.

Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.