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In 'Broken,' former caseworker examines problems in child protective services

The cover of "Broken" and author Jessica Pryce. (Courtesy of Harper Collins and Aaron Kudja)
The cover of "Broken" and author Jessica Pryce. (Courtesy of Harper Collins and Aaron Kudja)

Jessica Pryce is a former child protective services caseworker and now a faculty member of Florida State University’s College of Social Work. In her book “Broken: Transforming Child Protective Services ― Notes of a Former Caseworker” she looks back her CPS years and how they led her to quit and work for systemic change.

Book excerpt: ‘Broken: Transforming Child Protective Services ― Notes of a Former Caseworker’

By Jessica Pryce

IT STARTS WITH US

I had been a child protective investigator for about one year when I started having nightmares. In this particular one, I was getting ready for work, like any other day. I went into the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror. To my horror, my face was disfigured. I had thick webbed scarring, and my skin seemed waxy as if it were melting in place. It was the sort of disfigurement that frightened people and made them avert their gaze. I gasped and stared for a moment longer before I finished getting ready. I had to make a stop for a case on the way into the office. When I arrived at the house, I was shocked to find dozens of Black children lying across the lawn. All of them appeared dead, and their faces were disfigured in the same way as mine. Why did my face match all of these dead children?

I got out of my car and carefully stepped over their bodies, one by one, and I made my way to the house. It was as if their bodies were uneven bricks on a sidewalk. A woman opened the door before I knocked. But it wasn’t just any woman; it was my best friend, Erica. I introduced myself as the child protective services (CPS) investigator and informed Erica that I had received a report regarding her children and needed to ask her some questions.

“There are dead children all over my yard and you want to ask me questions?!” She was livid. I noticed her face was unblemished, and I wondered if she could see my face the way I saw it that morning in the mirror.

“Yes,” I said bluntly. “I need to get some questions answered, I need to walk through your home and see your children, complete a risk assessment, and—”

“And you need to go talk to the school and the neighbors and ask them if they have any concerns about the safety of these kids,” my CPS supervisor said, as she appeared next to me, giving me additional directives. I nodded and quickly jotted down a single note: The children are already dead.

Psychophysiologists call dreams the road to the unconscious.1 Science tells us that within five minutes of waking up, a person generally forgets 50 percent of their dreams. Within ten minutes, 90 percent has been forgotten. It has been fifteen years, and I still remember that dream. I will not claim to be a dream interpreter, but I do have a guess at what it meant.

In CPS, we often focus on the wrong things. We overlook the true essence of what is in front of us and engage in rudimentary queries about surface-level dynamics that do not get us to a genuine understanding of what is happening with families. When the approach is one-size-fits-all, then our priority is making it fit, no matter what is going on around us. Decisions are made that vilify parents, even when we know that families are stuck in a cycle of inequity, low access to support, intractable poverty, and the complexities of human relationships. With insufficient information, we wield elusive power, and we require tasks that are focused on rehabilitation and surveillance.

That dream disturbed me a lot. It made me realize that CPS work truly does change the professionals in the system. There is trauma in what professionals witness, what they endure, and also when they realize that their help is actually harm. When the realization of culpability surfaces, moral distress and shame often create a cycle that plagues your waking and sleeping hours. Although my dream showed external disfigurement, I believe that CPS disfigured me on the inside. That disfigurement was facilitated by the systemic harm I passed along to families and children. For me, the dream confirmed that not only are children and families being harmed by the system, so are the professionals.

Doing CPS work often felt as if the strings that were attached to investigators and caseworkers led back to a dehumanizing mandate or an outdated policy or procedure. Many families were so clearly in need, in crisis, but we had a process and an investigation to complete. Working with families is dynamic, and all questions shouldn’t be the same, all inquiries shouldn’t sound the same, and all investigations shouldn’t produce the same result, which is often a family left powerless, fearful, angry, and dazed.

This book is largely about the strange odyssey of my child protective work. In 2007, the year before I started in the field, a group of authors posited that child welfare professionals should be given a warning: beware, this may change you forever and can be dangerous.4 I came to realize that the dangers were far more than just physical. Moral injury and moral distress in child protective agencies have been explored by social scientists, and there is great need for mitigation tactics and support structures for child welfare professionals. If it is true that “hurt people hurt people,” then the harm to families will continue and likely become more pronounced as the workforce continues to suffer.

I am (and have been) a sort of satellite in the orbit of the CPS system. I don’t think I ever belonged there, but I am certain that my purpose was to be there. And I have been there in many ways—as an intern, as a social worker, as an investigator, as a friend, as a relative, and as a subject matter expert. At the onset of my time working in CPS, I did not know how subjective the job could be. Our childhood and upbringing is a lens through which we, subjectively, see the world. I grew up in a tight-knit family in a small neighborhood. The insularity of my childhood didn’t prepare me to fully understand the vulnerability of my community or the structural challenges that ensnare many families.

I hope this book will be helpful for a wide variety of readers, but I wrote this book for the professionals who are currently in the child welfare field, students who are interested in social work, and the CPS system’s partners like therapists, educators, medical professionals, attorneys, judges, court-appointed advocates, guardians ad litem, and law enforcement. Child protective work is interconnected with other family-serving organizations, so if your work affects the well-being and safety of families and children, I hope you will read with an open mind and open heart. I invite the reader into my personal journey through deep moral conflict. This book brings together firsthand accounts from my child protective field work and additional stories of the experiences of Black women. It includes the difficult situations that professionals face daily, and also the desperate situations that many families are in.

From “BROKEN: Transforming Child Protective Services—Notes of a Former Caseworker” by Jessica Pryce. Copyright © 2024 by Jessica Pryce. Published by Amistad, an imprint of Harpercollins Publishers. Excerpted by permission.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.