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Now that Eric Smith, (not real name) a 17-year-old foster child, has been declared a dependent of the court, he is on a mission to change the laws that regulate CPS. “No one should have to go through what I did,” he said, citing his nine months in CPS custody last year. “They treated me like I was a villain, instead of a victim. Why? Because they can.” Eric wants to see that stop.
Just shy of 18, Eric is not yet able to fully tell his story. But that is not stopping him from writing letters to political officials and child welfare groups, recounting his experiences and proposing legislative changes. And what he can tell of his story, he does.
On April 1 2011, an emergency CPS social worker was dispatched to Eric’s high school to meet with him. CPS had received a phone call citing concern of emotional abuse in his home.
It was not the first call to CPS as court records would later show. But it was the first call to claim concern that Eric, who had attempted suicide before, might again attempt to take his life. A little-known provision in Welfare and Institution Code 300(c) allows the court to take jurisdiction if a child is suffering serious emotional damage.
The social worker who interviewed Eric that Friday afternoon promised him he would not need to return home. “She said she had a safety plan for me. But first she wanted to meet me at my house to talk with my mom.”
The social worker got to the house first. Eric arrived minutes later but retreated into a hallway at the sound of laughter. The social worker had discovered what Eric knew she would. It was what had kept him from confiding in others for 16 years. Eric’s mother was herself a former CPS social worker. Eric knew he wouldn’t stand a chance of getting the help he needed.
The two women gossiped like school chums, about coworkers, about supervisors, but mostly about Eric. “I knew he was lying,” he heard the social worker say to his mother.
Not less than an hour after arriving at the house, the social worker packed up her bags and closed the case. Before leaving, she placed a phone call. “Is Eric Smith at your house?” she said after identifying herself. “If he is, you need to return him immediately. There is no abuse in this home.”
Eric, crouching in the hallway, bolted.
It would be nine months before Eric would hear the words he’d doubted ever hearing, delivered at the final court hearing: “There is clear and convincing evidence of severe emotional abuse in this home.”
Eric’s story takes twists and turns to outrage even the most cynical. It’s a story he plans to tell in full one day. What he can reveal now is that the initial emergency social worker was removed from his case, a second was assigned and removed, and then a third and a fourth.
“All four social workers assigned to me over the past eight months put me through hours of crude and offensive questioning, consistently siding with my mother,” Eric said.
The second social worker was assigned after Eric bolted from his house. He had sought shelter with a friend until CPS could be notified. Unwilling to relinquish control to CPS, Eric’s mother allowed the second social worker to “voluntarily” place Eric in the Sacramento Children’s Receiving Home. On his second day in the home, his mother cut off all contact with his friends, his therapist, and his adult brother, claiming they had “brainwashed” her son. It was nine months before CPS would allow him contact with them again.
“CPS did not listen to me or believe me. They tried to put words in my mouth. They twisted facts. They tried to convince me of things that were not true and persuade me out of things that were true.”
Mike Johnson (not real name) was one of those social workers. Johnson reviewed the case and questioned Eric repeatedly. “He sat me down and said, ‘I am telling you, you never heard the words “there is no abuse in this home’ that afternoon. Do you understand?’”
“He wanted to cover for the social worker. He tried to tell me that I did not witness what I had seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears.”
Johnson further told Eric that no court had ever taken jurisdiction under Welfare and Institution Code 300(c) and to expect to be sent back home. Emotional abuse could not be proved. It was his word against his mother’s. He was a teenage boy. She was a former CPS social worker and foster mother.
Thus began weeks of relentless interrogation. Johnson, as well as each new social worker, continued to side with his mother, accusing him of fabricating his story. When Eric asked them to interview his friends and other family members to corroborate his story, the social workers refused, saying juvenile cases are confidential to protect the privacy of the minor. Anyway, CPS added, they are not parties to the case.
“They told me I was lying,” Eric said. “They told me I was having a sexual affair with my friend’s mother. That she was having an affair with my therapist. They told me that my therapist was a quack. That I was not suicidal. If I was being abused, where were the scars? They believed everything my mother said. And they refused to talk to anyone else.”
Eric was put on 24/7 suicide watch for six months and told that “if I tried to run away or contact my therapist or friends, I would be placed in another city in a group home.” Johnson threatened the friend’s family with restraining orders if they so much as tried to contact Eric.
Meanwhile, the boy’s mother was being investigated on a separate matter. Her two-year-old foster child was removed, and she was charged with felony abuse of an adult dependent—her severely disabled adoptive daughter. Still, CPS hammered Eric with accusations. They recommended to the juvenile court that the case be closed and Eric be sent home.
Eric considered appealing to the State Foster Care Ombudsman until he learned that the ombudsman would go directly to the offending social worker to disclose the nature of the complaint as well as the identity of the child. It was a case of the fox guarding the hen house.
After six months in temporary placement—chosen by his mother—Eric finally received court permission to his petition to be placed in a foster home. Eric had been through dozens of hearings and still his case hung in the balance. Still CPS insisted there was no abuse in his home.
In early October, Eric’s foster father received a panicked phone call from the high school principal, followed by several calls from CPS. The police were looking for him. Eric’s French teacher had assigned a ten-minute free writing exercise and become alarmed at what she’d read:
The system has failed me. I have been denied the love, influence, and support from those who mean the most to me. Why? The simple answer is because they can. I am being punished by the very institutions put in place to help me....They say I am in ‘Protective Custody’ (that’s a laugh). I am the only one fighting for me.... No doubt in anyone’s minds why CPS will go to every length to protect one of their own.... I am going to escape. Come and watch the fireworks.
In November, the Juvenile Court declared Eric’s home unsafe to return to, bringing the CPS ordeal to an end.
“I felt trapped in a system meant to help me. Not only was I harassed, disbelieved, and mistreated by CPS, but I was denied access to the people I loved and needed the most. The laws meant to protect me, protected CPS.”
According to the attorney who worked on Eric’s case, “CPS works within a cloak of governmental immunity. Without a change in legislation, what’s hidden in the dark will stay in the dark.”
“Social workers need special training to recognize emotional abuse under WIC 300(c),” Eric said. “CPS put me through hell, and there was nothing I could do.”
With a rueful smile, he added, “I am nameless and faceless now. But in nine months, I will be 18. I will have a face. And I will be able to tell the whole story.”