Special Report: Harm's Way

Special Report: Harm's Way

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Jill Atwood ReportingThere's a growing movement to limit the power of Utah state social workers in favor of "parents rights." But an Eyewitness News investigation uncovered evidence that instead of being too AGGRESSIVE, the Division of Child and Family Services may NOT be doing enough to protect youngsters.

It's not a case of not wanting to do the right thing—it’s a case of not having the right training or the right systems in place to make sure children are not left in harm's way.

Last November a three year old boy was killed by a bullet to the face -- the shooter, his four year old brother. Their mother worked nights as a security guard; she was asleep in the other room.

Lani Ete watched the two little boys wander the neighborhood streets day and night for months. Once she found the youngest sleeping in a gutter in only a diaper. She called West Valley Police several times; she also called the Division of the Child and Family services several times.

Still, the children continued to wander unsupervised, and her frustrations mounted.

Lani Ete, Concerned Neighbor: "Should the children have been taken into state custody? Yeah because ultimately they would both still be here."

This case is particularly tragic, a child died. But our investigation found that there are many similar cases where poor training and vague policy could very easily lead to bad decisions and delayed action. A veteran caseworker, now not with the agency, says inexperienced, and often overwhelmed caseworkers will cut corners and miss obvious clues.

Former Veteran Caseworker: "If you use your head and have some common sense you would ask these types of things: ‘Okay what do you do for a living or why are you so tired? Or why are you sleepy?’ ‘Oh I’m a security guard.’ ‘Oh, security guards carry guns, do you carry one?’"

Records show at least three different caseworkers called on this home between September of 2002 and November of 2003. The last case was closed just eleven days before the shooting -- citing no evidence of non-supervision.

Richard Anderson, Director, Division of Child & Family Services: "It was my understanding that there was going to be coverage between the parents to make sure that the children would be supervised while the other was working."

Communication could have been better in the case as well. Police logs show West Valley police responded to concerns about the children four times during 2003. Again no action was taken, and the two agencies rarely talked.

Anderson did look into this case, but he says it's typical of the fine line caseworkers have to walk between doing too much or not enough.

In the meantime, neighbors who remember the little boy still wonder...what if?

The Division says it’s doing its best to handle its caseload, but it’s up against some pretty big obstacles. For example: there are 125 full time protective service workers. Last year 39 of them quit; that's a 32 percent turnover rate.

Intake workers handle 19,000 calls of reported child abuse or neglect. Of course not all of those calls are substantiated, but workers do have to investigate most of them. Those are big numbers for very few people, complicated by that revolving door phenomenon.

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