In December 2012 i removed my son from a private school in Utah amid concerns that a teacher may have physically abused him. At the time my son was only six years old and he is Autistic. The schools director ignored my requests for an investigation so i turned to the Utah Dept. of Child and Family Services (DCFS) for help.
The DCFS case worker performed one interview with my son and closed the case when he didn’t disclose abuse. This interview was performed without myself, his mother, a facilitator, a support person or anyone present to ensure effective communication and help protect his rights.
I contacted DCFs to express my concerns that the caseworker did not appropriately consider my sons disability. My concerns were escalated to DCFS Associate Regional Director Tonya Myrup.
Tonya responded to me via email stating: “The interview with B has been reviewed by our region Child Protective Services Specialist and by attorneys who are experienced in issues related to ADA. It is thier opinion that DCFS conducted an effective interview…DCFS has experience in forensic interviews with children with challenges and limitations”
I would soon learn that Tonya’s claims about the interview and DCFS experience and aptitude in interviewing special children like my son was far from accurate.
I requested that the Office of the Child Protective Ombudsman (OCPO) conduct an official investigation. According to the Dept. of Health and Human Services “The purpose of OCPO is to receive and investigate complaints to ensure that proper services are provided by DCFS.” The investigation was conducted by Deputy Ombudsman Paul Schaaf.
Paul stated in a summary of his investigation, contrary to the previous statement by Tonya Myrup, “OCPO found that the CPS caseworker did not conduct a thorough or adequate interview of B because the caseworker asked leading questions”. Leading to what? No answer, yet. This meant that even if my son were not disabled, the caseworker didn’t interview him properly.
The investigation report goes on to state: “OCPO reviewed DCFS Practice Guidelines and found there is not a guideline for interviewing children with special needs. OCPO also found that the current training provided to CPS workers does not include techniques for interviewing children with special needs” and continues with “On April 22, 2013. OCPO contacted the DCFS CPS program Specialist, Sarah Houser. She reported to OCPO that DCFS does not have a protocol for interviewing children with special needs, and although DCFS Administration recognizes the need for one, due to other projects, developing a protocol, Practice Guidelines or providing training is not on the forefront”
I was shocked. As a parent of a disabled child living in Utah, which has one of the highest rates of Autism in the country, with 1 out of 47 children diagnosed, I had to wonder. How could our government service that is charged with protecting children not consider it a priority? Children with disabilities are among the most vulnerable members of our society. It is absolutely unacceptable that their safety is considered unimportant.
OCPO went on to recommend that “DCFS Administration develop a Practice guideline and/or an interview protocol that addresses CPS interviews of children with special needs” and that “DCFS administration provide training to caseworkers to build and enhance their interviewing skills of children with special needs.”
In a surprising response from DCFS Deputy Director Staci Ghneim she states: “DCFS agrees with both recommendations made…Our CPS Program Administrator, Sarah Houser, has already initiated discussions with the Children’s Justice Centers about working together to identify a program and develop a training for those who interview children. We anticipate that once a program has been identified, we will also need to add to our Practice Guidelines. We don’t have a deadline for these activities to be completed by but anticipate we could have completion within one year”
I was very encouraged by this unexpected response. I feel strongly that this is a positive change that our disabled community needs. I decided then that the best thing that i could do would be to let them work without getting in their way. I expressed to OCPO that so long as DCFS maintains their commitment to appropriately serving disabled children i will not pursue action against them for mishandling my sons case.
For me this is a trade off between my son’s individual rights and the greater good of our community. Since i made this trade off i feel an obligation to my son to ensure that DCFS follows through with their commitment.
That is why I’m telling my story here. The more people I can reach the better i can show DCFS that people are listening and that there is a real expectation that they follow through on what they have offered to do. I will be checking in with OCPO and DCFS periodically and posting updates about their progress here.
Please share my page with anyone you know that might be interested in seeing these changes accomplished; Parents, grandparents, educators and childcare workers. Anybody who cares about children and wants to see positive change.