Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer
Ice cold fingers and toes on an infant in an unheated apartment in winter, diapers changed by a child sibling as a caretaker lounges nearby, and mattresses without bedding in unkempt rooms. These are some of the scenes observed by child advocate Guardian ad Litems, volunteers appointed by the court to conduct ancillary child welfare checks at the homes of foster children. Many such children locally are in the care of a relative in the event rights are taken from the parent, but that doesn’t mean the care is better.
Macon County Department of Social Services (DSS) estimates that 83 to 87 percent of families involved in child welfare cases deal with some form of substance abuse, and the potential long-lasting impacts of maltreatment has influenced an increasingly pro-active approach to child welfare.
The urgency of child welfare in the county prompted DSS director Patrick Betancourt to request $28,765 from the Board of Commissioners in February to hire two additional social workers to handle case loads and visit homes. The first has already been hired and will start work March 18, while the county is still advertising for a second social worker who can start by April 1 and work through the county’s fiscal year, which ends June 30.
DSS currently has five Child Protective Services (CPS) social workers, and a total of 11 social workers who have on-call responsibilities for CPS-related cases.
“The primary factor contributing to the increase in the number of CPS cases is a heightened awareness and understanding of how trauma impacts child development,” said Betancourt.
Complicating the county’s responsibility to visit a home, many children reside in multiple homes at a given time: the mother during the week, the father on the weekend, and sometimes a grandparent.
“Regardless of where the child resides that residence must be visited and the child’s safety in that residence assessed,” said Betancourt.
The role of a court-appointed Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is not the same as foster care social workers, but sometimes the work of the two overlap. After training, the volunteer is sworn into the court and assigned to a family where there has been a DSS Juvenile Petition allegation of abuse or neglect of the child. The GAL visits the home regularly to assess the foster child’s safety, submitting reports every 90 days to the court that may contribute to the court’s decision to remove a child from the foster care family.
“In Macon County, there are lots of families that live in substandard homes, that are crowded and unkempt,” said Stephen Sitz, 63, a real estate broker in Highlands, who has served as a GAL for a year and half. Sitz remembers selling life insurance at a home in Chapel Hill some 20 years ago, when he walked into a foster home and saw “brusque” treatment of the children. He heard about the GAL program about five years ago and made the decision to get his certification and court appointment so he could help address the problem locally.
“I learned to realize that opioid addicts and the children and relatives of opioid addicts – you gotta look down the ancestral line and realize that there was trauma with these families before this generation,” he said. “If you don’t break the cycle, the cycle continues, and the drugs just make it worse.”
Sitz said often parents and foster parents need help themselves. They need guidance. Social workers are critical in that path to making their homes and lifestyles safe for children. Explaining the independent nature of his status as a GAL (he does not work for DSS), Sitz said his assessments and those of a DSS social worker provide different perspectives: “The difference is she’s a trained social worker, and I’m a realtor.”
Sitz said that his training – which ran for about two months at two to three hours per week – taught him that people of different backgrounds and upbringings have different lifestyles, and it was important not to judge people by how messy their home was, for example. He needed to go into that home, make observations and ask questions seeking to establish the safety of the child.
“Not every foster parent is ideal,” he said. Some may be doing it for the money. Sometimes the closest family member may be serving as a foster parent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re capable of providing the best care. If the home looks like a scene from the movie Animal House, Sitz’s antennas go up, but he drills down on one basic question: “Are the children being cared for and loved?”
Still, he is not naïve, describing one home he was responsible for: “The more frequently I visited, the more authoritative I got.”
Betancourt hopes to hire the case workers quickly to more evenly distribute the more than 20 cases per social worker handled by his current staff.
“Assessing child maltreatment is an exceptionally complex and detail-oriented process,” he said citing issues such as “substance misuse,” mental health needs and family violence. “The addition of the two child welfare social workers will assure that families and children have caseworkers who can devote an appropriate amount of focused time and attention to help children and families stay safe.”