Can the child protection system always prevent tragedy?
As the supervisor in southern St. Louis County's Initial Intervention Unit, Mark Wilhelmson is on the front lines of confronting child abuse and neglect. It's there that Wilhelmson gets a firsthand look at a growing problem.
As the supervisor in southern St. Louis County’s Initial Intervention Unit, Mark Wilhelmson is on the front lines of confronting child abuse and neglect. It’s there that Wilhelmson gets a firsthand look at a growing problem.
A 37-year veteran in the county’s health and human services department, he’s a fountain of information on an unsettling topic. Child maltreatment takes many forms; the state breaks it down to five: neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, mental injury and medical neglect.
Wilhelmson won’t say he’s alarmed, but this year through August, he said, the county has fielded 882 reports of child abuse or neglect that have been responded to by social workers.
“That’s high,” Wilhelmson said. “Last year, we had 1,350. It’s trending upward.”
In 2012, the number of children involved in maltreatment responses was 1,098. It’s a requirement, Wilhelmson said, for social workers to physically see all of those children. So, he’s got a bevy of workers carrying up to 30 cases each. Two workers at a time are assigned to handle phoned-in reports of maltreatment.
According to Wilhelmson, 30 percent of responses will be assigned for investigation of maltreatment, and slightly more than half of those will prove true. St. Louis County owned one of the state’s highest rates for determining maltreatment in 2012, with a rate of seven out of every 1,000 children found to be the victims of a form of abuse. The state average that year was 3½ per 1,000.
The other 70 percent of responses yield family assessments that can elicit additional support for a family - everything from counseling to further protective services such as ongoing court supervision of a
When 14-month-old Layna Peterson died in her Duluth bed July 5 - allegedly suffocated by her father, 29-year-old Christopher Peterson, who is facing second-degree murder charges - it gave a new face to child abuse in St. Louis County.
Social workers responded to Layna’s case in December 2013 after a local physician reported a bruise on her face. They determined her case required family assessment with ongoing support. County workers met with the family for several months leading up to Layna’s death.
Many questions abound after that tragedy, and Wilhelmson knows some fingers will be pointed at his office. But did a breakdown in the child protection system play a part in Layna’s death? That’s a harder question to answer.
“It’s tough,” Wilhelmson said. “People want to find out who’s to blame. I wish social work was an exact science, but people have to make judgments. We’re in the risk-
Inside the courtroom
Wednesdays are child custody court days in southern St. Louis County, where the third floor of the courthouse bustles with parents, lawyers, social workers and others, but not many children themselves. Most of the children are in temporary foster care or with other relatives. Their presence often is not necessary for procedural hearings.
The parents are hoping to be reunited with their children in what amounts to a civil matter of the state versus the parents.
Some parents come dressed for court. Some arrive wearing casual clothing.
Some parents appear to be fighting harder than others.
On Aug. 20, the afternoon docket featured two emergency hearings, which were closed to the public.
The almost dozen cases before them were not subject to such strict confidentiality. It’s a paradox in the child protection and custody processes that most hearings are open to the public. Among processes that mostly are kept secret to protect the victims and families, the openness of the court hearings stands out.
There are a variety of reasons for today’s hearings. The judge, Theresa Neo, described the parties involved as “families in turmoil.”
One mother was without custody temporarily for allegedly not having any food in her home and spending her days isolated as a drug addict. Another set of parents were facing the court for apparently enabling their son’s habitual middle-school truancy. Still another couple temporarily lost custody of their infant, who’d been born four months premature. The baby was described in court as both historic and “a fighter” for being the most premature survivor in county history. The attorney representing the county admonished the couple for putting their needs ahead of the infant’s by not attending several prearranged visits, including missing important doctor’s appointments.
Finally, one mother was applauded for dealing with her mental health issues but reminded to consistently complete her urine analysis tests - the last of which had come up clean of drugs or alcohol.
All of the day’s cases were pretrial hearings. In most of the cases, the families seemed to be progressing toward reuniting parents with their children. Many parents already were voluntarily following plans designed to reunite them with their children. Their civil trials could impose plans upon them or even lead to further hearings that would permanently take their children from them. By voluntarily taking steps to improve their home lives and behaviors, families earn favor with the court and can even negate the county’s pursuit of a maltreatment trial. In one hearing before Neo, a county prosecutor said he would consider dismissing further hearings against one family if progress continued for another month.
The families on this Wednesday mostly were complying with psychological evaluations, addiction assessments and even sobriety. Most of their supervised visits with their children were going well. The father of the boy who struggled to attend school reported to Neo that he recently enjoyed a fishing outing with his son. Between 2009 and 2012, there were 530 cases of children being reunited with family. In 98 percent of those cases, or 521 of them, there was a no reoccurrence of abuse or neglect.
“Our approach is always to try to engage the family and support systems to figure out how to keep kids safe in their homes,” said Holly Church, St. Louis County Health and Human Services’ children and family services director. “Both as a philosophical approach and a statutory expectation, that’s how we work with families - with an emphasis on preserving families when we can safely do so.”
Wilhelmson agreed, saying, “We make strong efforts to reunify.”
Until her death, social workers met several times with Layna Peterson, her father and mother and her maternal grandparents at Layna’s home on the 700 block of North Ninth Avenue East. As many as three child protection services social workers adjusted their schedules to meet collectively with the family on Saturday mornings.
It didn’t stop Layna Peterson from joining 26 other children statewide since 2005 that have died of abuse or neglect despite child protection’s involvement in their cases, according to numbers from a 2014 Star Tribune report.
Some would call that system failure; Layna’s maternal grandfather did so in an article in the News Tribune in August.
“I know (child protection) did everything they were allowed to do - their hearts were in the right place,” Kevin Pryor said. “They tried really hard to make sure the child was protected. … But a child died, the same child with a CPS case for bruising on her face. I can’t say the system works because we have a dead child.”
The News Tribune was not allowed access by health and human services leaders to the social workers involved in the Peterson case. Per state law, a review panel someday will have to disclose its conclusions about Layna’s death, but it has at least until the end of Christopher Peterson’s trial to do so.
There are people inside the system who disagree with the notion that human beings working in the best interest of children would simply fail them.
“Or is it just a tragic set of circumstances?” attorney Pat Schaffer asked.
Schaffer is the Public Health and Human Services division head of the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office. She oversees a cadre of attorneys working in a gamut of categories - juvenile delinquency, guardianship, civil commitment, child support, paternity, adult services and, of course, child protection.
“Life is unpredictable,” Schaffer continued. “Everyone does their absolute best. There are things one cannot reasonably predict. It was an incredibly tragic outcome for that child. Does that mean something’s wrong? Or was it just a tragic set of circumstances? People want to find blame, but there’s a lot of really great work being done by (child protection).
“I see some of it. These are tough circumstances, with hard decisions. They provide an amazing amount of support for the families and have passion for the work they do. From our working with the department, I’m impressed with the work they do.”
That work is only getting harder, said Schaffer’s supervisor, St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin.
In a report he issued to the St. Louis County Board in August, Rubin noted that child abuse and neglect requiring legal intervention was up 12 percent in 2013. There were 34 more child protection petitions filed in 2013 than in 2012, and 72 more than in 2011.
“To me it’s quite alarming,” Rubin said. “It’s getting worse. These numbers to me suggest a lot of work to do.”
A petition means the county is taking the family to civil court for temporary custody or protective supervision of their children. Temporary custody results in children being taken to Bethany Crisis Shelter until a suitable foster home can be found. Under protective supervision, parents maintain child custody but with strict court oversight, including the involvement of a guardian ad litem assigned to report back to the court. The guardian ad litem is an independent third party who regularly assesses a family’s situation apart from social workers.
Rubin rattled off a list of reasons for the trend upward: young parents who isolate themselves amid stress and turmoil, unmet mental health needs of parents, domestic violence in a relationship and drug and alcohol abuse by parents.
Wilhelmson’s front-line observations support Rubin’s assessment. Wilhelmson described methadone abusers who “basically end up drooling - a dangerous mix with kids around.” Heroin is the newest concern, he said, while alcohol is a perpetual one. One-third of the cases in which parents lose custody involve substance abuse, Wilhelmson said.
There are other reasons, he said: poverty, joblessness, hopelessness.
The St. Louis County Board has responded to the growing problems by funding staff additions to the brigade of social workers, something previous boards have not been willing to do, Wilhelmson said.
County attorneys, though, are simply doing more with less, Rubin said.
“In child protection cases we are involved throughout the cases, and they can go on for a year - sometimes longer potentially,” Schaffer said. “There’s a lot more ongoing attorney involvement.”
Schaffer said the child protection cases benefit from having skilled and veteran attorneys who are efficient at what they do.
There are three ways parents lose temporary custody of a child: Law enforcement can remove a child from a perilous situation at a moment’s notice, a judge can rule for the county to take custody of a child, or parents can voluntarily surrender custody of their child to the county.
In an acute moment, when a peace officer removes a child from a bad situation, the child is placed on a 72-hour hold. It’s at this point that policing and social work converge. State law requires near immediate contact between the police and the Initial Intervention Unit.
Social workers respond by determining if the case requires family assessment or investigation. If necessary, attorneys file an Emergency Order for Protection with the court and the parent or parents are scheduled to appear in child custody court within the 72-hour timeframe. Concurrently, law enforcement pursues any potential criminal charges against an allegedly abusive or neglecting parent. The system works in reverse, too, in that a responding social worker can be compelled to solicit law enforcement involvement in a potentially criminal situation.
Duluth Deputy Police Chief Ann Clancey and Wilhelmson both described the procedures to the News Tribune. The concurrent responses leave the police and social workers intertwined throughout much of the process.
“We can coordinate for efficiency and for the sake of the family,” Clancey said, describing such methods as concurrent interviews with children that are intended to minimize the amount of stress on a child. Clancey said children may be interviewed as victims but also as witnesses to potential crimes of their parents.
It’s not every day that children are immediately removed in the heat of a moment by law enforcement. What can be appalling conditions or circumstances to an outsider may be normal and not acutely unsafe to a child, Clancey said.
At the same time, if temporary shelter is the guide, it’s not uncommon for officers to act, either.
“We have one juvenile crisis center in the city of Duluth,” Clancey said, “and it’s not enough.”
Officers are trained at screening for risk, applying social work skills to their role as law enforcers.
It’s not an easy job.
“It can be difficult on our officers,” Clancey said. “Most of our officers are family people. It’s draining on them.”
Alternatives and conclusions
In cases that advance to permanent custody removal, there are alternatives for the child. The preferred route, Wilhelmson said, is adoption. Conceivably, that adoption could send a child “anywhere in the country,” he said. Another alternative is a transfer of custody to a relative.
The idea is to minimize a child’s time in temporary situations, such as foster care.
“It used to be we had wholesale removal from families, and kids were being injured in foster care,” said Erin Sullivan Sutton, the assistant commissioner for Children and Family Services for the Minnesota Department of Human Services. “We want to keep kids safe and home, but only when it’s safe to do so. Children need permanency in their lives in order to thrive.”
Sullivan Sutton began her career as a social worker in child protection services and is described by her department as “an articulate champion of children’s issues.”
Families who lose permanent custody rarely see their children returned to them, though it is possible in situations of transfer of custody to a relative. So, rather than have children languishing in foster care, waiting for parents to figure out their lives, the state acts.
“Getting a child into a permanent arrangement is a matter of priority,” Wilhelmson said.
The juggling of priorities - keeping families together, finding permanency for a child, keeping children safe - can place a significant burden on social workers to be expert at what they do.
Child protection services “is a complex field of social work practice,” Sullivan Sutton said.
To that end, child protection work evolves, she said. It uses the mortality review process that reviews tragedies such as Layna Peterson’s death and a host of other forms of data collection to address change. Sullivan Sutton has been with the department through the additions of what she called “ground-up initiatives,” including the development of a statewide child welfare training system and uniform training for new child protection workers.
Even so, she said, “I just don’t know we can always prevent people from killing other people.”
Shortly after the death of her 14-month-old daughter, Layna, Amber Gundy, sought an Emergency Order for Protection against Christopher Peterson. The unmarried couple still shared in raising four other children - two of their own and two belonging to Gundy. Peterson had not yet been arrested for Layna’s murder, but according to the grandfather the family was suspicious. So on July 16, 11 days after Layna’s death, Gundy filed her petition.
She did not respond to efforts to reach her for this story. But in the petition, she described further abuse by Peterson that preceded the alleged murder. He’d previously kicked Gundy in the stomach, driving her into a wall in April - two weeks after she’d given birth by Caesarean section to their third daughter. Gundy wrote he also put his hand over her mouth and nose in an effort to block airflow during that incident. Gundy further reported she witnessed Peterson perform the same suffocation technique on her oldest daughter, an 8-year-old, early in 2014. Layna died of suffocation, with Christopher Peterson having confessed to police to using the technique on his daughter to stop her from crying.
Church, the children and family services director, was posed with the question, “Can a system prevent tragedy 100 percent of the time?” She called back three days later.
“I can’t stop thinking about the question,” Church said. “My whole career in child and family services, the whole staff has worked based on the belief that we can avoid child abuse and neglect. That’s what drives our work with families. That’s really what’s behind what makes social workers work so hard. But we cannot do it alone. We cannot act on information we don’t know. We aren’t always in control.”