Monday, February 18, 2008


by Gina Sestak

The toughest job I've ever held, emotionally, was representing indigent parents in Juvenile Court dependency proceedings.

"Dependent" children are those who are abused, neglected, or otherwise without parental care or control. So you probably think their parents are scuzzball slime, right? WRONG.

Most of my clients were poor people caught in a system that employed just-out-of-college middle class kids to go out into homes and determine whether children were at risk. Turn-over in their job was tremendous. Most lasted no more than 6 months or, at most, a year. I handled cases in which these social workers deemed children to be at risk and had them removed from their homes by the police because:

* there was a cat seen sleeping on a child's bed

* the children (ages 11, 14, and 15) were home alone (at 3:00 in the afternoon while their parents were grocery shopping)

* the parents couldn't explain how a child had been injured (the injury occurred sometime during a two day period during which the child had been in the care of relatives on both sides of the family as well as with the parents)

* the child's burn wasn't properly treated for 5 days (but my client had taken her daughter to the emergency room right after the accidental burn happened; it was the hospital who sent her home with ointment instead of properly assessing the extent of the injury)

* the child has bruising on his lower back (this was "Mongolian spots," a dark pigmented area commonly seen on kids with East Asian ancestry)

* they were living in a shelter (their home had burned down)

These caseworkers also testified that parents were unfit because "the mother took that child on a city bus" and "although the children have proper beds, their mother is sleeping on a mattress on the floor" (my client's explanation: she thought it was more important to spend limited funds on the kids' needs rather than her own). When one mother did some wildcrafting (this was when "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" was popular), the caseworker accused her of making the children eat weeds.

All this was going on while real abuse and life threatening situations were being ignored. One caseworker failed to take action when, during a home visit, she noticed that a previously alert baby had become lethargic. "I just figured he was retarded or something," she testified, explaining why she left him there to die of a brain injury. And, in a case that actually made the newspapers (most Juvenile Court proceedings are kept confidential), three mentally challenged girls were sexually abused by their father and his friends for years, despite repeated reporting of suspicions by their school. Reported sexual abuse of a toddler was discounted when the doctor who was supposed to perform an exam refused because the child screamed and seemed terrified when he tried to examine her. So, without evidence, she was sent back to the abusive home.

Once the kids were in foster care, parents were limited to one one-hour visit per month, in the presence of a caseworker. One caseworker noted that my client seemed "unable to control" her 5 young children during these visits - the kids, who only saw each other during these visits, tended to get a little rowdy. Another faulted how my client interacted with her child - my client, who had been raised Amish, explained that she had not been raised to make a public show of emotion. A caseworker tried to stop visitation with my client (the father) because the child would be out of control when he went back to the foster home -- her example: the little boy didn't want to stop playing with a truck his father had given him. Another caseworker made my clients come to visits for more than six months "to prove they would show up," but never brought the children to the visits. Another testified that my client had failed to keep a visitation appointment without calling to cancel as if that were proof of irresponsibility, even though my client had provided her with a newspaper article showing that she (the client/mother) had been in an automobile accident and was in a coma on the day of the scheduled visitation.

I could go on for pages, but I'll stop here.

The job was a project funded by Allegheny County through the Allegheny County Bar Association. I and another attorney - Katherine B. Emery, who is now a Judge in Washington County -- handled all of the cases ourselves. It was described as "part-time," although hearings started at 8:30 a.m. every day and sometimes continued into the evening. We were expected to provide our own offices, etc. out of a small stipend that was often paid months late. Three judges heard cases, and Kathy and I were constantly running from one courtroom to another. The few minutes out of court were spent in a waiting area, interviewing our clients and trying to prepare cases on the fly. Research, appeals, etc. had to be done on the weekends.

After about two years, I walked out of a court room and punched out a window in the attorney waiting area. I realized that it was only matter of time before I hit a social worker or a judge.

The project is still in existence, but now it has funding, offices and full time employees.

And me? I'm still burnt out.


LK said...

That is correct. The child protective and kidnapping industry is a scam. They are not in it to protect children. They are in it for the money.

We all want it to work like it does on paper, but the system is out of control.

This is a great post. A former insider spills the beans. I will link to it from my own blog.

Arkansas Cyndi said...

Gina - I am one of your "lurkers" here who rarely posts, but your post really touched me. I could feel your frustration pouring through your words. thanks for such a powerful post.

Suncana said...

In recent years, there have been numerous stories in newspapers around the world about the failures of the departments of Family Services and Social Services to do their respective jobs of monitoring and assisting children in dangerous situations. Do we ever read about a child murdered by a family that the Department of Children & Families or the Sheriff's Office has not already investigated, usually more than once? What will it take to protect these innocent children?
These stories are a step in the right direction, but one wonders if perhaps they came too late. All the outrage in the world can't resurrect a dead child.
Too many children have died as a result of wrong decisions by CPS. With power comes responsibility and accountability, which most officials ignore. A child welfare system so overwhelmed with children who don't need to be in foster care,the less time they have to find children in real danger.

Let's NOT allow these precious children's death to be in vain - in the news one day, forgotten the next.

Children Who Didn’t Have to Die - Website

Gina said...

lk - I don't usually think of myself as "a former insider." In fact, I felt like an outsider at the time, fighting the system on behalf of my clients, and I did manage to get some of the kids home.

suncana - I had this job in the early 1980s and had hoped that things had changed. I guess not.

Tory said...

I was watching "Bleak House" (Charles Dickens) on DVD over the weekend and thinking we had moved on a bit from Dickensian England (no Debtor's prison and we at least attempt to get street urchins some sort of guardianship) but your post makes me wonder how far we really have come. It's still true that money and power are the best protectors.

Joyce said...

From what I've seen, things have improved since the eighties. The caseworkers are better trained now and there's a lot more oversight. It's not a perfect system, though. When our department reports a case to CYF, they're usually pretty quick to investigate. And nowadays, the police will not remove a child from a home. That's up to the caseworkers. Sometimes an officer will stand by in case there's trouble, but it's very rare.

ramona said...

Gina, good on you for recognizing when you'd reached your limit, but it is so admirable that you could do this work at all.

We hear about children having children. I read this thinking it was children caseworking children. Fresh out of college, I didn't know anything about anything.

Thanks for pointing out some positive changes, Joyce.

Cathy said...

Very enlightening blog, as usual, Gina. How many jobs left?

Gina said...

Cathy -
I haven't counted recently, but I reckon there are quite a few jobs left.

JennieB said...

And here I thought working as a closer at McDonalds at 18 was unpleasant...

Great post, Gina. Very powerful, very disturbing. As a parent of two small(ish) children, who always have bruises and scratches all over their little bodies - they're boys, for heaven's sake - I live in fear that someone's going to think we're abusing them and take them away from us. It happened to someone we go to church with, and they had an awful time getting their child back.

Brenda said...

Gina, Did you see the Frontline a few years back about the foster care system?? The social workers seemed to have more problems than the clients. I was sorry that I watched the program because it made me clench my teeth in my sleep for weeks after. You have had a fascinating life. Thanks for your posts

Gina said...

Brenda -
I didn't see that FrontLine. I actually avoid things related to the child protection system for the same reason I avoid the "Animal Precinct" type shows. I get way too angry.

Minister Smith said...

Hi Gina,
I am Minister Ronald Smith, CEO of Children Need Both Parents, Inc. I am also the principle organizer of the Family Preservation Festival which will take place in Washington DC on August 15-17 2008. I would like to talk with you. Please contact me at 616-301-1515. Your comments on the way our courts handle indigent families is exactly what we have been fighting. Title IY funding makes every child worth dollars to the state and completely ignores the destruction of the families that get in their way. I am looking forward to your communication.

Minister Ronald Smith

Sue J. said...

A commenter optimistically states that there have been improvements made to the so-called protective system. Yes, but the changes include the unwarranted stream-lining of children into the system, stream-lining of the courts' resistance to family reunification, stream-lining of TPRs - terminations of parental rights. All this takes money and training and educated collusion, and none of it goes to anything but the "best interests of the child-snatching industry." I laud Gina for coming forward. THANK YOU, Gina!!

gracefull15 said...

I used to be one of those people who believed in the legal system and thought there was no way CPS would tear children from their parents unless there was a legitimate cause. Then I became a victim of their so-called "justice" and my eyes were truly opened. When it came to me I am battling a police officer for custody of my children in a very corrupt county in TN where he has ties to the judges and workers within the CPS system itself. Everytime I make reports to protect my children I'm the one who pays for it. The children's mother locked my daughter in a closet as punishment, CPS refused to investigate and their father took them to a couselor that his attorney has on retainer so the counselor could say that none of the above had happened that I had made the kids say it. As a result the court filed a restraining order keeping me from my children. The abuse these children have suffered at the hands of their father has been unreal. I have to listen to my 6 year old daughter cry and tell me how she lies all the time at her father's house because she'll get spanked if she doesn't. I have had to listen to my daughter since she was 2 years old cry everytime she used the bathroom after coming home from her father's house because she said her pee-pee burned because her 15 yr. old stepbrother had touched it. Then there are the doctor's reports of the countless urinary tract infections she has suffered after visits at her father's house. My son is almost 5 and I have to listen to him tell me how their father makes him wear diapers at night and if he wets his diaper he gets spanked and is made to sit in his room all day long. He neglects their physical and medical care, uses countless scare tactics and intimidation tactics with them and even jeopardizes their lives. When he left them alone in a swimming pool at ages 3 & 6, CPS once again refused to investigate and told me to call the law to check on them. Well, as you can guess, the law was the same police force he worked for and the officer was one of his friends. As a result, I was arrested for filing a false report. This case was dropped in court once the judge saw the evidence. I have called this report into CPS 6 different times and all 6 times they have refused to investigate even though I had a witness and pictures to prove his endangerment of my children's lives. Their excuse was that nothing bad had happened to them so they weren't going to get involved. What is wrong with a system that is supposed to proctect children that they tell you they are going to wait until something bad happens to your child before they will get involved. Every step of the way CPS has refused to investigate any allegations I've made. Not one. But they're awfully quick to investigate me. When all I did wrong was to try to protect my children.
Now let me tell you what I have found out in CPS's investigation of me. They never called one person to prove me innocent. The case worker found reason after reason and excuse after excuse as to why she couldn't or wouldn't call anyone to prove me innocent and protect my children. After some research I found out that there are no guidelines governing who the caseworker has to call. She doesn't have to call one single person to prove a parent innocent. However, the same guidelines also makes it possible for the caseworker to call everyone to prove a parent guilty. CPS isn't interested in preserving the family unit or protecting children. They have their own agenda, biases, opinions and friendships guiding their so-called investigations. What is wrong with this system. And then, there are no guidelines governing their honesty while interviewing and talking with parents. They deceive parents into thinking they don't take children from their parents, that they're only looking out for the welfare of the children,that they want to preserve their family unit and are only there to help, while all the time they're gaining information that they can twist around and warp to make their case even stronger. Then whatever the caseworker says is what goes on record. Only in rare instances do they allow parents the right to take it before a judge to appeal the caseworker's decision. Now the joke really begins. They conduct an administrative hearing where the judge isn't under the guidelines to prove a parent guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. All that has to be present is an allegation and it's totally up to the judge themselves as to what evidence they choose to believe and not to believe. And get this one, the judge is also a judge hired and paid for by the CPS system itself. Now how fair do you really think these hearings are going to be? A parent and their child don't stand a chance once they become the target of CPS. And trust me it is a free for all.
In my case, if CPS had only taken a couple hours to investigate the history of me and their father, this case would have been open and shut. Any fool can put 2 & 2 together, but obviously not CPS. Their father has a long history of alcohol abuse, violence, adultry, charges of sexual harrassment and has repeatedly used his badge and position to try to scare and intimidate women into giving him sex or anything else wants. The threats me, my family and friends have had to endure because he didn't get his way have been unreal. One would think if he was using these kinds of scare tactics and intimidation tactics on adults that they would also be just as easy to use on a child. DUH!!! He has refused counseling for these children for the past 1 1/2 years unless it's with the counselor his attorney has on retainer. Isn't this a big wake up call to anyone with half a brain, what's he got to hide? Meanwhile, I have no history of any prior allegations of abuse, violence or neglect of anyone, even though I worked in healthcare for over 10 years. However, CPS in their glory has decided that I am a perpetrator and they are proceeding full speed ahead to try to prove me guilty. And believe me, they are relentless
It's time someone puts a stop to the tyranny of the CPS system. Afterall, the price that is being paid for their failures are our children. They're the ones who suffer the most. I would love to talk to anyone that I might could help or who might could help me. My email address is It is time we stand together to protect ourselves, our families and most importantly our children.

Tonya said...

My family and I have been a victim of these people for almost 5 months now. My 2 year old suffering in a foster home while I am going out of my mind with grief and helplessness because I do not know what to do. I was wrongly accused of child abuse against a child in my care. I have been a childcare provider for over 20 years. In addition to I am a mother of 4 and a grandmother of 2 and have never lifted my hand to a child in a harmful way in my life. Yet I was accused of hurting this sweet 5 month old baby that I only had a handful of times and I TOLD the parents on the 3rd day of caring for this little guy, that something was wrong with him.

No criminal charges have been filed against me, because there is no stinken evidence to prove I did anything, they never investigated the parents or the male friend of the family who cared for the child 2 days prior to the day I had him and he collapsed in my arms. Oh yeah did I mention..I actually saved the babies life, not hurt him, but this is the thanks Ive gotten!

With all this said my rights have been trampled on like I live in some 3rd world country where the Constitution has never been heard of.

CPS has an obligation and duty to offer services before pulling a child, I was not. I was promised a speedy trial, well 2 continuances, 3 judges and now 5 weeks of advisement later I still have not gotten word from the courts. My son has went from foster care to his paternal grandparents, back to foster care. HE IS FREAKING 2 YEARS OLD. Happy healthy well adjusted little guy, or atleast he was once.

I get one hour a week with him now. I have tried everything so if someone, anyone has any suggestions please I beg you, help....this is a parents worst nightmare, these people that say they are out to protect children are glorified kidnappers. They put children who have been obviously abused back with the parents that eventually kill them yet those children who having loving parents who take great care of them...those are the ones they steal. Did you all know they get paid for every child they pull from a home?

I beg the Lord everyday to send me a miracle...perhaps there is someone out there that has one.


Kathleen Dearinger said...

I wrote out my entire long story on the improper adoptee but it wasn't accepting comments and I lost all my story. So I think for now I will post my links and contact information and place your page on my facebook so others can see tyranny that is ocruring everywhere.

Kathleen Dearinger
Families Unite 5 Childrens Rights Foundation

Families Unite 4 Childrens Rights Foundation said...

Please visit me on facebook at:

I am under Kathleen Dearinger

Families Unite 4 Children's Rights

ps. sorry about the typo on my last post