The Oak Life Journal
Sep | Oct 2023
"Child Protective Services"
By Ann Houck
4 minute read
During my social work training, I had a professor who worked in child protective services for many years. His words to his students were, “Find a way to work in child protective services. You will receive the best post-graduate training there is. You will see everything; you will have the opportunity to become strong and professional.”
And, just a few years later, I found myself becoming a child protective services social worker. I worked for the Children, Youth and Families Department in the State of New Mexico, USA. And, my professor was right—I saw it all.
Initially, I was an “investigator,” one who engages with families of abused children to determine if the environment is safe for the children, or if they need to be placed in protective custody. Frequently, the reported allegations were unfounded and there was no danger to the child(ren). However, all too often, there was real danger and it was necessary to remove the child(ren) from their home(s).
What a horrible situation.
My job was to provide protection to the kiddos by placing them in an environment that was unknown to them—that alone was scary, frightening, traumatic even. Here I was, taking a child from one traumatic environment and placing them in another! Was I indeed protecting these children? Were the homes giving shelter indeed safe havens for these kiddos?
They were haunting questions, always in my mind.
They are the same questions so often in the minds of orphanage directors, as well.
Many of you have children in your care who have been removed from their familial home due to abuse and/or neglect, resulting in severe trauma. There may be physical injuries that obviously heal, but there are definitely emotional, mental, frightening injuries that you cannot see.
How do we ensure that our homes are, indeed, protecting the children from further trauma? It is a big order, a big challenge. How do we get between the child and the trauma? How do we know that we are creating an environment of felt safety for them?
There are three areas to consider carefully:
The Obvious Things
We start with the obvious things, right? We ask ourselves, “Is the physical environment free from hazards? Are children supervised at all times by a responsible adult? Are the basic needs of the child taken care of? Are there adequate facilities for the kids—beds, toilets, play areas, etc.? Are nutritional needs being met? Medical needs? Spiritual needs?
The Emotional Needs
And, then, what about those elusive, hard to see emotional needs?
Children come to us in varying stages of verbal development. Some may not have learned to talk; some may have an impediment to their verbal development. But they all have behaviors that speak volumes.
What are the behaviors telling us? Can we see anger, sadness, joy in how they are acting? Can we rely solely on what the child tells us to provide information about their needs? Well, no, we cannot. We must become detectives, to learn what their behavior is telling us, as well as what the words are saying. And then, informed by that detective work, we create a unique emotional environment that feels safe and connected for the child.
But lastly, we have to be intimately aware of ourselves and our own attachment and emotional shortcomings. Tall order, right? And as a director, you have to also know your staff.
Who are these adults working with the children? Are they a part of your organization because they want to work with the kids, or are they simply there for a paycheck? Are they themselves emotionally suited to deal with the trauma-induced behaviors exhibited by the kiddos? Are they willing to learn about themselves and how their own behavior and emotions can affect the children’s behaviors?
When the answer to these questions is ‘no,’ or there are glaring weaknesses in staff members, then it’s time to either help them through some personal growth, or find someone new.
Are we getting complicated? Yep, we are.
You see, I am assuming that you are working in orphan care because you want to help these children recover from their trauma—because you want them to be productive, healthy thriving members of society when they leave your home. And, making that happen means we have to know ourselves and those working with us.
Who are we? What do we know about ourselves that will make us better “in loco parentis” to these precious beings?
Child protective services take children from their families and place them in our homes. Now, the task of protecting and healing children falls to us. This fact alone is a wound in a child’s story, but it doesn’t have to be permanently damaging. When we create a physically safe environment, care for the emotional needs of the children, and know and grow ourselves emotionally, we can become spaces, not just of protection, but of healing and restoration.