by Joel Smith & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & "I & lt;/span & t's very scary," Nicole LaBelle says of the first contact social workers make at the homes of allegedly abused children. "You don't know what's on the other side of that door." LaBelle, a program manager for the Department of Social and Health Services' (DSHS) Region One (an administrative area covering most of Eastern Washington) is speaking for both the social worker -- who never knows how a parent is going to respond to their intervention -- and the parent, who may not know why they're being paid a visit.

"There's fear and anxiety on both sides," she says, stressing that social workers don't have the legal authority to march into someone's house and take their children away without a court order. "There's a social perception to the contrary."

The child abuse response chain starts, generally, with a phone call. LaBelle says that the vast majority of calls CPS receives regarding possible cases of child abuse or neglect come from mandated reporters -- people whose job or position requires them to report abuse or suspicion of abuse. This includes law enforcement personnel, doctors, social workers, teachers and others.

About 70 percent of these calls, according to LaBelle, involve suspicions or allegations of neglect toward children. Step One for social workers is to get the basic facts straight: What type of abuse is alleged? Who's committing it? Where is the child or children? If it's a father being physically abusive to his daughter, they want to discern immediately the severity of the abuse. If it's a mother doing drugs and neglecting her kids, they want to know what kinds of drugs, how often she's doing them, where the kids are when she's doing them.

If a third party (a neighbor, a stranger, etc.) is accused of abuse, CPS will hand the case over to law enforcement. They'll do the same if they sense that a child is in imminent danger. Otherwise, they must determine whether the case is serious enough to take on. With only 40-some investigative social workers on staff, CPS must prioritize and choose its cases. Of the approximately 4,400 referrals received last year, LaBelle says, only about half made it through the screening process.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he next step is to determine the risk factor of the situation, using a scale from 0 to 5 that takes into account, among other things, prior history, physical injury, the child's vulnerability and possible behavioral problems, as well as caregiver characteristics (substance abuse, parenting skills) and other social and economic factors. It also weighs protective factors -- the child's ability to get out of the house when hostilities arise, the mother who shelters her kids from the father's abuse, etc. "Most families are probably doubtful that we acknowledge the strengths," says LaBelle. "But we do."

The level of risk determines the department's response time. In non-emergent situations, CPS has 72 hours to make face-to-face contact with the child and take down an account of the abuse or neglect. The child, LaBelle says, can be a huge help in nailing down specifics of the case. "Some kids don't talk," she says, "And some kids tell you everything in fine detail, including the location of the chemicals to make the meth. It's remarkable what parents think the kids don't know, and they do."

The department may hand off situations that are designated as low-risk to contracted agencies. In high-risk cases, CPS must meet with the child within 24 hours. Then they talk to the perpetrator of the abuse, to parents, to other witnesses.

If the situation at home is stable enough, then the child will stay there, and CPS will work with the family to create a safety plan that helps mitigate the dangers for the child. For instance, the mother might agree to remove all alcohol from the home by a specified date. Or an aunt might visit the mother and children a few times a week to check up. Once safety is achieved and the risks of re-abuse have been reduced, the case is closed. If, however, CPS' safety assessment judges that the home is not safe for the child, they'll petition juvenile court to remove him. To do so, they must show proof that the child is faced with a "clear and present danger."

LaBelle says they first try to relocate the child with other family members, so as to lessen the shock of the move. She notes that many children tend to see relocation not so much as a protective measure for their own safety, but as punishment for bad behavior: "I'm being taken away; I must've done something wrong." She says every effort is made to keep their daily routines running smoothly -- to keep them in the same school, on the same sports teams, with their friends.

She says places like Sally's House, a temporary shelter run by the Salvation Army, does an excellent job of supporting kids in transition, with their swimming pool, comfortable bedrooms and abundant games. "It's unusual to have that" in a community, she says.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & M & lt;/span & eanwhile, the department works with the court system and families to alleviate the problems that led to their kids being taken away. Some parents are grateful for the support. In one such case, a mother and father lost their children to the court because of extremely hazardous conditions at home: clothing and garbage covered the floors, the kids' dresser drawers were home to mice, the attic where the kids often played was full of knives, drugs and porn. But the investigative assessment reported that both parents loved their children and spent time with them daily, and that the children looked forward to seeing them. The parents worked hard to change their ways, and the kids moved back as in-home dependents of the state last August. LaBelle reports that the court should finally dismiss the dependency in the next few weeks.

The department performs a reunification assessment, crafts a transition and safety plan, monitors it for at least six months and then closes the case. If parents don't alleviate unsafe conditions and behaviors, they could permanently lose parents' rights, and the children would be put up for adoption or taken in by a legal guardian. LaBelle says that's a worst-case scenario. "We hope that those out-of-home [kids] become in-home [kids]."

But even a closed case can lead to future problems. To that end, DSHS holds for six years all cases it takes on. Cases in which CPS investigations dug up "founded" allegations of abuse or neglect (as opposed to "unfounded" allegations, which the department doesn't have enough evidence to pursue) are held permanently and a mark is made on the perpetrator's criminal record. "That disqualifies them from ever working with vulnerable populations," says LaBelle.

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