Associated Press

Keeping children safe is a fast-paced, high-stress job

The Associated Press

April 26, 2005, Tuesday, BC cycle

Keeping children safe is a fast-paced, high-stress job

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer

SECTION: Domestic News

LENGTH: 1333 words


An alarming report lands on Laura Gutierrez’s desk at the end of the day: A 5-year-old boy is afraid his abusive stepfather might kill him.

In a nearby office, a separate complaint reaches Audra Moy: A 6-month-old girl is hospitalized with unexplained fractures from her neck to her feet.

In the fast-paced, high-stress world of Child Protective Services, new reports of abuse and neglect pour in daily and every second of delay could leave a child in an unsafe – and potentially deadly – situation.

Gutierrez, a caseworker with the Department of Family and Protective Services, scans the report on the boy and quickly realizes she won’t be going home at 5 p.m. This case needs immediate attention.

As an investigator with Unit 86, one of two initial assessment units formed in October to deal with a backlog of cases in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, Gutierrez doesn’t always have the luxury of signing out after an eight-hour day.

In reviewing the report, she learns that a 35-year-old man allegedly put a pillow over his 5-year-old stepson’s head and held the child under water on different occasions. Child Protective Services does not identify reporting parties, but the lead could have come from a school official, a neighbor or even a relative.

The man has a violent temper: Gutierrez said allegations suggest he beat up his 21-year-old wife – pregnant with her fourth child – and forced her to eat only one meal a day because he considered her “fat and ugly.”

Gutierrez, a 25-year-old with a degree in psychology, decides to visit the family’s home.

“To have a 5-year-old tell you that he’s afraid to go home because his stepdad is going to kill him, you begin to worry,” Gutierrez said.

Last year, 77 Bexar County investigators were assigned 14,525 cases, Texas records show. That’s roughly 189 cases per person, many taking days and weeks to complete.

Five of the six investigators assigned to Unit 86 joined the agency within the last five months, with starting salaries of about $29,000 a year. The exception is 29-year-old Moy, a senior investigator with six years of experience. All are women – not that unusual in an agency where most employees are female.

A state review ordered by Gov. Rick Perry found that CPS investigators – many juggling 70 or more cases a month – often took too long to visit suspected abuse victims and closed their cases too early. A 51 percent annual turnover rate among investigators also hampers the agency, the review found.

Perry and state lawmakers are hoping to ease the burden. Legislative proposals include hiring additional caseworkers, increasing investigators’ pay and using new technology to reduce workloads.

“I hope change comes about, because I think it’s going to be hard for the agency to keep people if change doesn’t come about,” Moy said.

When visiting homes, CPS caseworkers carry a badge but no weapons – although they occasionally bring police along with them when they fear the situation might spiral out of control. (In early March, two CPS workers fled on foot after facing shotgun fire at a house they visited near Alice. A woman eventually was arrested.)

The 5-year-old boy’s stepfather was not at home when Gutierrez showed up without a police escort that night. After talking with the boy and listening to his mother describe four years of domestic abuse, Gutierrez gives her a choice: “Either she was going to have to protect her children or I was going to take them away to protect them for her,” she said.

The woman agrees to leave the home and spend the night at a battered women’s shelter.

At home that night, Gutierrez can’t get the family out of her mind. She feels confident she helped matters.

“The majority of time, you hear nothing but bad stuff,” she said. “But trust me, there’s a lot of good stuff that happens.”

The next morning, Gutierrez spends time at the shelter, talking with the woman and trying to discourage her from returning home.

Moy, herself the mother of a 21-month-old son, said investigators learn to put aside their personal feelings and “go from there.”

But she said, “There are days when I go home and I tell my husband, ‘I don’t want to do it anymore. I want to quit.’ … You just have to take a step back and try to realize why you’re here.”

Melissa Tijerina, Unit 86’s supervisor, later joins Moy and five other CPS investigators and supervisors in a “pre-removal staffing” meeting to determine whether to take custody of the 6-month-old old girl with fractures all over her body, including her ribs, arms and right leg. When time allows, CPS convenes such meetings so staff members can compare notes before taking a child from a parent, Tijerina said.

The baby’s mother had brought her to a military hospital for vomiting and diarrhea, Moy explains. Just days before, doctors had treated the infant and her 2-year-old brother for pneumonia and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. At that time, they had done a chest X-ray. When doctors reviewed the X-ray again after the child was brought back to the hospital, they discovered that her ribs were fractured.

The same child was seen in the emergency room at 1 week old for bruising to the buttocks, which her 23-year-old mother blamed on the baby’s breach position before her birth. At two months old, the girl was taken to the hospital for a fever and doctors noticed a bruised eye, which the mom attributed to the older brother throwing a ball. CPS was not notified in either case.

After discovering the fractures, doctors ran tests for brittle bone disease, a birth disorder. The results would take at least a week. But two physicians said they suspected abuse was the cause of the fractures.

“They both feel that the tests are going to come out normal because there are other factors that will show up on X-rays that they’re not seeing,” Moy said.

In interviews with CPS, neither the father, who is in the Air Force, nor the mother could offer any explanation for the fractures. The mother suggested that perhaps nurses had been too rough in handling her daughter.

Before putting a child in foster care, CPS tries to find a close relative with no criminal record to care for the child. In this case, background checks revealed a history of domestic abuse involving both sets of grandparents.

The paternal grandmother told Moy that her relationship with her current husband was hostile until about five years ago, when the couple started going to church. “She spoke a lot about her religion and how that’s really helped her,” Moy tells the group in describing her interview with the woman.

After about 30 minutes of discussion, it is decided that CPS has no choice but to take custody of the infant and her brother and find a foster caregiver, at least temporarily.

“I think you’ve got a lot of risk factors, even if you don’t know what’s causing the injuries themselves,” said Robbie Callis, a CPS program director who is Tijerina’s supervisor. “Young parents. Questionable parenting skills. The types of injuries.”

CPS investigator Emily Winfield said she feels good about her work. But she hesitates when asked if she will survive a year in the job.

“It’s stressful, especially when you come in and that light’s blinking and you’ve got 20 messages on there,” she said. “You’re trying to remember who’s who. Sometimes, I get confused on which case I’m working because there are so many.”

Gutierrez seems more optimistic about her prospects for a long-term career with the agency. She said she tries to balance her job and personal life.

“Sometimes, I’ll be driving home and I’m like, ‘If I went on this exit, I can go visit this one person,”‘ Gutierrez said. “But I have to tell myself at 5 o’clock, ‘You can do it tomorrow.’ … I do OK because I make it that way. A lot of people don’t make it that way because you want to do nothing but go out and help.”

On the Net:

CPS report:

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