Most days when she leaves for work in the morning, Mary has no idea what’s in store. A teacher may find out a student hasn’t had dinner or a shower in a week. A baby could be found with a broken arm or burn marks. Even worse, a child could have died from abuse or neglect.
As a lead investigator for Buncombe County’s Child Protective Services division, Mary, a pseudonym used for safety concerns, might have to respond to any and all of these reports, and there’s no telling when she might be called.
“[Mary] does not know if she’s going to get a case today,” says Mick McGuire, social services program coordinator for Buncombe County. “There’s a high probability that she will, but we don’t know if it’s coming at 11, or 3, or if it’s coming at 4, and she might have work until 9 o’clock tonight. We just don’t know right now. And that’s pretty tricky, you know, to then plan a life around.”
Luckily, she’s passionate about children and families. She has to be.
“This is a really hard job,” says Mary. “So there has to be a desire to want to help people and to want to intervene and keep children safe and support families.”
That desire has been tested lately, as the investigations division has struggled with staffing shortages, peaking in May when 11 of the department’s 29 positions were vacant. The resulting workloads led to the entire staff “crying at their desk” in May, says Rebecca Smith, Buncombe’s social work division director.
At that point, employees had to juggle 25 cases each, more than double the state-mandated maximum of 10 cases per employee. Therefore, the department shifted staff around to help cover the caseload. Thus far, the county hasn’t faced any repercussions from the state for its large caseloads, McGuire says.
County commissioners approved money for extra pay for staff and recruiting incentives at its Aug. 15 meeting, and the department expanded the types of degrees it would accept for the positions beyond social work degrees.
The changes have helped, but six positions still sit vacant as of Sept. 6, and of the 23 investigators on staff, only 11 have more than six months of experience. Because of extensive training and a modified workload when investigators first start taking cases, it takes at least a year to fully learn the job, Smith says.
That means the 11 employees with the most experience are shouldering a large majority of the workload, Smith says, with an average of 17-20 cases each.
McGuire, who leads the recruiting effort, hopes the agency has turned a corner and applications will continue to come in.
“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in qualified applicants,” McGuire says. “It’s been kind of an all-hands-on-deck process. I hope the investigations team and staff feels that.”
Learning to mediate
In conversation, Mary has a calm, even-keeled demeanor and attentive presence. She is naturally a good listener. But she also carries herself with an air of confidence, and it’s clear she doesn’t get pushed around by abusive caretakers if a child’s safety is on the line.
That self-assurance has blossomed over the 10 years she’s been doing this work, which she started when she was 23 years old.
“I feel like I’ve grown up here,” she says, referencing the Child Protective Services department. “It’s really pushed me to be able to speak up, speak my mind, push myself to have hard conversations with people and express myself in a way where people are going to listen and hear what I have to say,” she reflects.
That growth has been vital to her success as an investigator, since much of the work, despite being about children, involves conversations confronting parents and caretakers who are not always completely honest about what’s happening in their home.
“You have the evidence, you have the disclosures from the children about what’s happened. And then this person is completely denying [what you know to be true.] So, that is a hard conversation to have with someone. And sometimes people get upset,” she says.
There is a common perception that child protective services departments exist to separate children from their families and to judge parents for how they care for their children, McGuire says. That often manifests as anger when an investigator like Mary shows up at a home to investigate potential abuse or neglect.
“We absolutely understand people’s reactions and responses to us. [They can] sometimes be harsh — yelling, cursing and threatening. But we know that it comes from a place of fear. And so, I think that’s really important to teach new social workers that if a parent is reacting to you this way, it’s because of what they believe that you represent,” says Mary, who also helps train new investigators.
Child welfare workers have to absorb and witness a lot of abuse.
“Secondary trauma does exist for all practitioners who work with anything involving really horrible, horrific things,” Mary acknowledges.
As a department leader, Mary primarily investigates cases of physical abuse, sexual abuse and the most severe neglect of minors. It takes a toll.
“It’s difficult. I would say that, personally, I think what’s helped me is just, I have a really good support system in my life. You have to learn how to compartmentalize things and leave things at work, which is really hard to do. And you can’t always do it every single time. But I do have to learn how to set those boundaries and turn it off when I need to turn it off,” she says.
Keep families together
McGuire says the primary goal of Child Protective Services — beyond ensuring children are safe and cared for — is to keep families together.
“Our goal is to meet the family where they’re at. We want to highlight their strengths, things that they are doing well, and build off of their existing safety network because we know that child maltreatment can happen,” Mary says.
Many times, McGuire says, there is an isolated incident that prompts a report, but the child is otherwise well cared for. In those instances, an investigator will focus on the positives and then zero in on what went wrong to cause a safety concern, McGuire says.
“We’re all social workers, really focused on prevention and support first, and then when we’ve exhausted all of our resources is when we have to have ongoing nonvoluntary services.”
Those services, which include temporarily removing a child until the threat to safety subsides, don’t come into play all that often, compared with the number of cases, McGuire says.
In 2022, for example, there was a finding of abuse or neglect in just 378 cases out of almost 2,300 processed, according to data provided by Smith. Another 897 were referred to voluntary services such as behavioral health providers or for mental health and substance use disorder intervention, based on the needs of the family.
Smith says about 80% of families never go beyond their initial assessment, while about 10% are referred to in-home services for ongoing therapy with a social worker. Another 10% of children deemed to be at imminent risk are referred to a team that works on a permanent housing solution for the child, including foster care.
McGuire says in that case, the department attempts to find a “permanent, caring, loving situation,” for the child, whether that be with a parent or through adoption, he says.
However, as reported by Asheville Watchdog, an acute foster care home shortage in Buncombe County gave caseworkers no option but to have children sleep in Department of Social Services rooms at least 61 nights this year.
Limited options and a wide variety of family dynamics force caseworkers to be creative in their solutions.
“Our decisions are made solely on what’s best for children, North Carolina general statutes and professional standards. We would never leave a child in an unsafe situation due to outside factors,” says Lillian Govus, spokesperson for Buncombe County.
“Every family is different. Every family’s upbringing is different. Every family’s trauma history is different. Every person that we work with may come from a different cultural place. And so, we just have to be supercurious,” McGuire says.
Regardless of the situation, while a child’s safety is paramount ideally, a shared agreement can be made between the social worker and family as to the best arrangement for the child’s well-being. Removal means the department has not been able to produce an alternative realistic solution for safety, McGuire says.
“We’ve worked really, really hard to try and keep children with families, because we know how traumatic it can be to remove a child from their parents,” Mary says.
Challenging but rewarding
To help staff members deal with the heavy, unpredictable situations they have to navigate, counseling services are provided in-house. Additionally, Smith says, the department includes at least two supervisors on decisions that involve removing a child from their home.
“Our agency has done a really good job supporting social workers; there’s a lot of resources that we have to help with what we deal with. We have a drop-in care time where social workers can come weekly, and just talk about what they’ve experienced and get support from their peers,” Mary says.
Beyond that, the job does have somewhat flexible hours, allowing for time off if someone is dealing with a tough case, McGuire says.
McGuire says despite all its difficulties, the work is very rewarding.
“Sometimes we’re meeting people who are in a bad spot or a bad place in their life. But I just think it’s such an honor and a privilege to get to support and work with the people in our communities that sometimes just need someone to support them,” he says.
Mary credits much of her personal and professional growth to the challenges of her job, and she says she wouldn’t want to do anything else.
“I would say if you’re looking for a superrewarding, challenging job that is going to push you to grow, like beyond your limits, and just show you an opportunity where you can make an impact in a family’s life, whether that be very small, this would be like a career choice to at least try out,” Mary says.