A Foot Soldier in the War on Child Abuse

The state of Arizona pays veteran Child Protective Services caseworker Mark Peterson $16 an hour to investigate serious reports of child abuse or neglect. Peterson, 46, a graduate of Northern Arizona University, has worked for CPS for seven years, and has spent a total of 22 years as a social worker specializing in children. He gets two weeks' paid vacation annually.

Despite the low pay and meager vacation, Peterson still loves his job, which may explain why he has been hand-picked by the CPS administration to take a New Times reporter and photographer on a Friday-night "ride-along."

The point of the ride-along is to exhibit a few of the internal improvements CPS has made over the past five years, to perhaps convince the reporter that the allegations made in the Bogutz lawsuit no longer apply to CPS.

Mark Peterson is one of 11 social workers who staff the "After Hours Unit," checking out the more harrowing reports of child abuse or neglect in Maricopa County.

Trained caseworkers at the CPS Child Abuse Hotline field about 400 reports a day throughout the state. That's roughly 38,000 reports a year. (Prior to the centralized hot line's inception in 1995, allegations of child abuse or neglect were made to local offices. Many were not investigated.) Current hot-line calls are coded according to urgency, written into computerized reports and e-mailed to various CPS offices. Local supervisors then assign caseworkers to investigate the allegations blipping on the computer screen. All reports are investigated, CPS says.

Eight percent of the calls pertain to sexual abuse, 45 percent relate to neglect, 36 percent report physical abuse, 8 percent pertain to child abandonment, and 1 percent to exploitation of children.

Peterson does "triage."
If he finds a report to be "substantiated," the case is passed on via computer to daytime caseworkers for further monitoring. If it is "unsubstantiated," Peterson's notes are also filed in the computer system, just in case CPS is again called to the home.

During Peterson's triage expeditions, he might be forced immediately to take children away from their families. He says he prefers to leave kids at home, but if the environment is too dangerous and he removes them, he seeks out relatives who might care for the kids. Shelters are the last option--they are overcrowded, traumatic for children and sometimes harbor dangerous teenagers who might prey on younger kids. Foster families and group homes come after temporary shelter placement.

Peterson won't comment on the Bogutz case, but doesn't deny sex abuse sometimes happens in CPS custody.

"I know that happens, and it's sad," he says. "But I also know there are great foster parents out there.

"In every field there are bad apples."
Peterson spent years as a daytime CPS caseworker, the kind who monitors a child's welfare for months, years. "I visited my kids every month," he says. "Sometimes several times a month. . . . I never missed a visit. I was a stickler on that point."

Although current agency guidelines do not require caseworkers to visit children monthly, Peterson says, "I'd still go every month. I am the one who has to get to know these kids. These are my kids. I am the one who has to stand before a judge and make recommendations. So I need to know what's going on."

He swears by the centralized computer system, called CHILDS, because it makes it easier to quickly get information on families.

"Here's what's cool," he says. "With the new computer, I can find out what happened to parents and kids anywhere in the state. Without that information on the computer, I can make very serious mistakes about what I do with kids."

Even though CPS keeps paper files dating to 1970, it's difficult and time-consuming to locate the files. And sometimes, like late at night, it's impossible.

A few weeks ago, he says, he almost removed two children from their alcoholic mother and placed them with the father.

But the computer listed the father as a "perp"--a perpetrator who had previously sexually abused one of the children. Peterson placed the children in a shelter.

Peterson's first call on this Friday evening: a report of a crack-addicted mother vanishing for days, leaving her three children, ages 11, 9 and 1, to fend for themselves at home.

Peterson climbs into a white state van equipped with a child's car seat. The van is large enough to transport several kids.

He locates the home in a clean, middle-class housing development and knocks on the door. Alice, 11, peers through the shutters. Peterson explains that he is from CPS, but Alice won't let him in. Instead, she calls police. She is frightened, cries.

Peterson also calls the police, to keep a SWAT team from descending on him.
When the police arrive, they tell Peterson they've been to this house before. The father and mother are splitting up. The father is reportedly violent. When police were called to a domestic disturbance here about a week ago, they say, the mother told them she had been clean and sober for 60 days. A teenage son also claimed to have kicked drugs.

"Funny," says one officer, "these people don't look like drug users."
When Alice sees the police car, she opens the door. She explains that Mom has gone to court to get an order of protection against Dad, and has left Alice and her two young brothers in the care of a 13-year-old baby sitter.

Peterson checks the baby, who is asleep in his crib. He's obviously thriving; the bottle resting near his chubby hand is clean and fresh. In quick order, Peterson examines the bedrooms (messy but clean), the kitchen (clean, plenty of food), the bathrooms (untidy, clean) and the kids (smart, well-nourished, clean, no signs of physical abuse).

At this point, the mother rushes in the door. She is in her 30s, moderately plump. Dark circles beneath her eyes and bumpy skin point to former drug use, but Peterson judges her to be currently clean and sober. She makes sense, is calm and coherent.

She figures her ex called CPS to harass her.
Peterson concludes that the children are safe and that the mother is taking good care of them. He will pass the case on to a daytime CPS caseworker, who will check on the teenager. If the teenager is okay, the report that came to the hot line will be classified as "unsubstantiated."

The second hot-line report assigned to Peterson: Two children are living in squalor. Their parents never clean the house, animal feces and food are ground into the carpet. The children are unbathed and wear the same clothes day after day.

"A dirty-house report," says Peterson, climbing back into his van. He tells stories about homes so infested with roaches that he has been forced to shift his feet lest bugs crawl up his legs, homes so rife with airborne contaminants that he dons rubber gloves and a mask before entering.

"If there are biohazards, the kids have got to go," he says.
There are generally two reasons people do not clean their houses, he says. Either they are on drugs or they are depressed.

On this particular visit, once again to a middle-class housing development, it appears that the latter is the case.

The parents are shocked and embarrassed. They make no excuses and follow Peterson as he tours the place.

Cat feces spill out of the litter box in the hallway. There are more cat feces among toys in the playroom. Guinea pig droppings beneath a cage in the dining room. Two days' worth of dirty dishes sit in the kitchen sink. Mountains of unfolded laundry on the dirty living-room furniture. The house stinks.

Positives: The kids, ages 7 and 3, are clean, well-nourished and happy. The pantry is well-stocked.

Peterson explains to the mortified parents that he won't take their children, but that they have to clean the house. He'll check back with them over the weekend.

The parents nod and swallow. They ask no questions.
"You have beautiful children," he says.
"All I do is triage," he explains as he gets back in the van. "Those people were horribly embarrassed. They knew their house was dirty. . . . I'd be embarrassed, too, if my house was that dirty."

Back to the office, to the chore of typing case notes into the computer.
"My reward for all this is the kids," he says. "They are my payback."

--Terry Greene Sterling

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Terry Greene Sterling