DHS doesn’t want to take your children

Editor’s note: Hancock County’s Department of Human Services staffers watched in silence as the agency’s reputation was sullied by a series of negative stories about employees, but they have been unable to defend themselves. Social workers had to watch in “painful silence” as news reports detailed allegations of forgery and a county task force elicited dozens of complaints about the agency’s practices. In a rare move, the agency allowed the Sun Herald to talk to one of the Hancock DHS social workers and her regional director to help the public understand what their job entails.

It was a moment to smile for Pam Cross and Rebekah Woodcock.

A child — we’ll call him George — who had been in their care had been adopted.

“You can close your case, he’s adopted,” Cross said with a smile.

“He is going to be so excited,” Woodcock replied. “I am so excited for him.”

Cross, a Mississippi Department of Human Services regional director, is responsible for the agency’s Hancock County office. She has 28 years of social work experience in child welfare at DHS. Woodcock is one of the department’s caseworkers, and she has been with the department for three years.

Both had worked on little George’s case.

“This is a child that the agency worked very, very, very hard to reunify this child with this child’s mother, and it was not possible,” Woodcock said.

He had been living with, and was adopted by, his grandparents.

“Unfortunately, he had to deal with DHS for four years,” Woodcock said. “And we’re talking about a child who is under the age of 12. That’s an eternity.”

“There were some drug addiction issues,” Cross added. “The mother did go to rehab.”

“Mom tried, she really did, which is why it dragged out as long as it did,” Woodcock said.

George’s was only one of the 12 cases Woodcock was working in early March.

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With a stack of case files on her desk, Mississippi Department of Human Services caseworker Rebekah Woodcock works in her office in Kiln on Thursday, July 7, 2016. John Fitzhugh jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

High caseload

Hancock County has the state’s highest number of children per capita in foster care. As of February, there were 74.4 foster children per 10,000 residents. The statewide average is 17.2. Only two other counties have more than 50.

“The issues that we have more of here in Hancock County is more children come into the system because of drug-related issues,” Cross said. “We have a high incidence of drug problems here in Hancock.”

And of course, poverty is “always an issue.”

Hancock County DHS was at a low point in December 2012 when Cross began working there.

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Lori Woodruff, left, and caseworker Ashley Holland listen as Iyesha Harvey, investigation and intake area social work supervisor, talks to Hancock County Department of Human Services Regional Director Pamela Cross, right, in their office in Kiln on Wednesday, March 9, 2016. Woodruff is a consultant with 33 years of child welfare experience, who has worked with the department to improve operations. John Fitzhugh jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

The office had only three full-time caseworkers to handle a caseload that touched the lives of more than 300 children. Social workers from around the state had to come in to help.

“We literally had more special-assignment workers from other counties here that were helping out than we had full-time workers,” she said.

A federal lawsuit, Olivia Y, settled in 2008, gave the DHS system in Mississippi a mandate to add caseworkers. The Hancock County office was one of four temporarily exempted from being counted in the settlement numbers because it was so far off the charts.

After reaching a high of 473 children in 2015, Hancock County has steadily decreased its numbers.

Having more employees has made a big difference.

As of July, there are 64 people working in Hancock County. That staff includes 29 caseworkers, eight investigators and six resource workers overseeing foster homes and adoption studies. There are 10 supervisors and a support staff of eight case aides and clerical workers. In addition, there are two regional supervisors and Cross, the regional director.

For the first time, the county has its own team of adoption specialists.

“Structurally, staff-wise, leadership-wise, I think Hancock County is at a place where I’d say we are stable,” Cross said. “I’m really proud of our Hancock team.”

Too much for a child

The children who are at the center of these cases struggle to understand their situations.

Woodcock said George had once told her, “‘I don’t understand. This is so stupid. There is nothing wrong at my house. I always had food. My mom always gave me a bath. My mom took care of me, and y’all came in and took me away and there was no reason for y’all to take me away.’

“The only thing you can tell a child like that is ‘There’s adult stuff that happens that you just don’t know about.’ Woodcock said.

“It really does stink for a kid. When you look at it from a child’s perspective, that’s horrible because he doesn’t know what happened, and his sense of security, the thing that all children should have, which is ‘Momma and Daddy can fix everything’ (is gone.) Mom and Dad couldn’t fix that, and he doesn’t even know what happened. He may never know the true story.”

Changes put in place

Two things brought about changes to the way Hancock DHS conducts business now. First was the Olivia Y lawsuit.

The second was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ACE study, which reinforced the philosophy of a “family-centered practice” at Mississippi DHS.

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Hancock County Department of Human Services case aide Darlene Bradley holds a baby at the DHS office in Kiln while their parents attend Youth Court in March 2016. Case aides assist caseworkers with transportation, supervision of family visits and other logistical matters. JOHN FITZHUGH SUN HERALD

That study, released in April, reminded DHS “that we create additional trauma to children if we remove them from the home,” Cross said.

“In all our cases, we always work toward reunification, which means to put the child back with the biological parents. We always start there unless it is some type of really serious abuse or something, and even then we’re probably going to take a while to assess the situation.”

In George’s case, “DHS fought a long time, past the time that DHS is required to fight for the mom to have an opportunity to reunify, but there were just so many barriers in her place,” Cross said. “Once she came out of rehab, she didn’t have housing, she didn’t have a job and it just was difficult for her to ever get back on her feet.”

Woodcock added, “That is one thing with addictions that I have noticed — that a lot of times people are maintaining, they’re making it, but they’re not really living. Then you end up having to go to rehab or you have to have some sort of intervention and while you’re there you end up with more barriers.

“You can’t pay a car note when you’re in rehab for six months. It’s really just a sad situation sometimes.

“Sometimes there are no easy answers.”

Different standards

Woodcock and Cross said sometimes the system is at odds with itself.

Social workers have a different perspective on cases than the youth court system does, and that can create conflict.

“A lot of the difference, I think, is the fact that most of our DHS staff is looking at it from a social worker perspective,” Cross said. “We’re looking at the whole picture, which is what we’re trained to do, and most of the Youth Court personnel is looking at it from a legalistic perspective, which is what their profession requires them to do.

“So it’s trying to balance between us being able to present the whole story and Youth Court making the best decision based upon that.”

The court sees a report in “black and white,” Woodcock said. “They haven’t met these parents, they haven’t been in the home, they just see what’s on paper, so when they get a report … they don’t talk to the worker who says ‘but wait a minute, let me paint the real picture for you.’

“They’re looking at black and white and they’re going, ‘Oh my gosh, these parents are horrible, take the kids,’ and they don’t give you an opportunity to do an assessment and explain.”

“You have to go to court and paint the picture and make sure that everyone understands that ‘yes, this was bad, it was egregious, these parents made a terrible mistake, but this is not what the whole picture looks like,” Woodcock said.

A stack of case files sit in Harrison County Youth Court before their session on May 17, 2016 in Gulfport. John Fitzhugh jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

“There are times that we very strongly disagree with each other, there are other times that DHS and Youth Court say, ‘OK, yeah, this is exactly what needs to happen.’ There’s going to be times that the two systems disagree,” Woodcock said, “and I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing.”

“At the end of the day,” she said, “I think everyone is working toward a common goal: DHS, Youth Court, law enforcement, all the different systems that are involved. I think everyone wants to see a child safe and happy and healthy and in a home where they can be loved.”

Impossible to predict

When a caseworker walks into a home they’ve been called to, they can’t predict the outcome based on the surface.

“There are cases where when you first walk in things look really, really, really bad,” Woodcock said, “but that was an isolated incident, this is not something that the parents do all the time. This child is actually in a really good place. He has parents that take care of him and look out for him, but Mom and Dad messed up, and they messed up one time.

“My main goal, my first priority, is not to walk in and remove a child. My first priority is to keep that child with his family, and if he or she can’t be kept safely with Mom and Dad, then put him safely with someone else who can help until Mom and Dad can get their issue sorted out.

“I’m an undying optimist, so I don’t really ever walk into anything going, ‘Oh my gosh, this is just so far gone that you’re not going to be able to bring it back.’ I know people have the capacity to change.

“I have walked into situations and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I do not want to be here.’ There have been times I’ve walked into situations and been completely terrified too, just for my own safety.

“Some of the ones you walk into that look really, really, really bad, those are the parents that do a complete 180 (degree turn), and sometimes you go into cases where you say, ‘OK I’ve seen much worse than this,’ and then those parents just don’t work nearly as hard as the other parents do.”

Setting priorities

The caseworkers have to juggle a lot, and children’s lives hang in the balance.

“There are days that you come in and you have your day planned out and you get a call that one of your cases has just kind of blown up, and you have to go handle that,” Woodcock said. “(You are) constantly, constantly re-prioritizing throughout the day.

“Most days are hectic. It depends on whether or not you have court that day. Scheduling conflicts are just a given.”

Trying to schedule a personal life amid the work life is a challenge, she said.

Recently, police called Woodcock to a house at 3 a.m. She was able to get a list of relatives who could take the children before the parents were taken to jail.

“You just do the best that you can to ensure the child is going to be safe with that family member.”

Luckily, Woodcock’s own children were at camp, because she didn’t get home until 10 a.m. that day.

“It would be a lot easier just to take a child and place him in the shelter and go home to my own children and go to bed, but we don’t do that, because that’s not how I would want someone to treat my child if I was in that situation,” she said.

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A changing table sits in the hallway of the Hancock County Department of Human Services' Kiln office on Wednesday, March 9, 2016. Caseworkers bring in children at all hours and have to be prepared to care for them until they can be placed with a relative or in a foster home. John Fitzhugh jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

“I would never want to take a child out of a home if I didn’t absolutely, positively have to.”

It takes time

In George’s case, DHS made an extra effort to reunify him with is mother, to no avail.

“For a year and a half, every time I’ve gone to see him he said, ‘Miss Rebekah, you told me a year-and-a-half ago this was going to be over with soon.’”

“I’m trying buddy,” she would reply.

Added Cross, “He told Rebekah he liked her and all of that but he wanted her out of his life.”

“That was one of the things he told me,” Woodcock said, ‘“It’s just not over with yet; there’s no finality to it.’ Even though he knew he was in his permanent home and he would never have to leave there, it still just wasn’t final (until the adoption was finalized).”

“I’m glad it’s over with for his sake. From his perspective, ‘this agency came in and took me away from my mom and there was nothing wrong.’ He doesn’t understand that there was a lot wrong, unfortunately. So then as he grows up he’s going to have this horrible mistrust of DHS,” Woodcock said.

“I think all of our staff understands the importance that, if it comes to the point that a child is not safe and we have to remove a child, that child’s sense of security is forever changed,” Cross said. “For a child that has been removed from his parents, that level of security is gone. I think that’s why our staff here is so diligent about making sure there’s no other option to keep that child safe when we have to ask for custody of a child.”

“You hope that as his (case) worker you build enough rapport with him and show him enough kindness and build enough trust with him that he doesn’t completely hate that system,” Woodcock said. “You hope that whatever relationship you had with that child and with that family helps them to not just look at DHS and say, ‘Oh my gosh, what a horrible, awful bunch of people.’

“I hate it from the kid’s perspective. It makes me sad.”

Click here to read another part of Fostering Secrets.

Click here to read the entire series.

About the Sun Herald’s investigation

Over the past 18 months, the Sun Herald has conducted exclusive interviews and filed public-records requests with several law enforcement agencies. The paper uncovered audio recordings, court filings and thousands of pages of documents related to how the state appears to have mishandled several child-protection cases.