“So what do you do for work?” I get asked that quite regularly. As passionate as I am about the work that I do, I have learned that bringing it up in social settings tends to dampen the mood. It’s just not a great party topic to talk about how I investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect.
I work in Alameda County’s Department of Children and Family Services, more colloquially known as “CPS” or “Child Protective Services.” Within the department, there are many units that carry out different functions, such as Family Maintenance or Adoptions. Currently, I work in the Emergency Response Unit.
Anyone who has information about suspected child abuse and neglect can call and make a report through the county hotline. The majority of people who call are mandated reporters: people such as school personnel, medical professionals, police officers who are required by law to make a report when they have information about possible child abuse or neglect. Calls also come in from concerned individuals such as relatives or neighbors.
Allegations of abuse or neglect fall into one of four categories: general neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, or sexual abuse. The information received through the call is accessed to determine whether the allegation warrants an investigation. If it does, then someone like me goes out to assess by meeting and interviewing each of the children and the caregiver or parent(s).
Most of the time, families are unaware that we are conducting an investigation and our first attempts to meet with them are always unannounced. Naturally, parents are typically not pleased that CPS is coming in to interrogate them on the most private family matters. If the child attends school, I prefer to show up to their school first so I can speak to the child privately without parental pressure or interference. I always make a home visit so I can access where the child(ren) live and that is where I usually meet with parents as well.
Throughout the course of the investigation, I am always assessing for the safety and well-being of the child(ren). After all of the meetings, I write up an investigative narrative and use standardized tools and measure to determine whether our agency needs to be further involved with the family.
A day in the life of working in Emergency Response varies greatly because each referral we get is always different from the next. Whenever I get assigned a new referral, knock on a door of a family’s home, or enter a family’s home, I never know what will happen. Each day is also unexpected, it could be spent driving around town unsuccessfully trying to meet with anyone in the family, or be spent in front of the computer meticulously documenting every detail I encountered in the investigation.
The work I do is emotionally taxing simply due to the severity and complexity of the situations we see and deal with. I remind myself to never think of my job as “just a job” because children’s lives are on the line and an overlooked detail could have drastic consequences. Sometimes I get asked why I chose to work in child welfare. Prior to graduate school, I worked at a non-profit with families of young children. My clients were parents who voluntarily came and sought out support. I started to wonder, what happens to those children who do not have any positive supports in their life or someone who is advocating for them? I wanted to work in child welfare so I could work with the most vulnerable or marginalized children in our community. Most of the time when I am interviewing a child, I am blown away by their resilience, maturity, and strength, amidst the situations they are in. It’s not easy for me, but neither is it for them.
Iris Lin is a third-year graduate student in the Master of Social Welfare program, with a concentration in Children and Families. She currently interns at Alameda County Children and Family Services in the Emergency Response Unit, where she investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect. Iris is from the Bay Area and attended undergraduate studies at UC Davis.