I work as a Child Protective Investigator in Florida. When Family and Children's Services gets a call reporting child abuse or neglect, I get called in to investigate.
When a call comes in, the department evaluates how quickly the situation needs to be investigated. Typically, if I'm assigned to a case, I have 24 hours to locate the child and investigate the situation. But sometimes, in the event of say, physical abuse that caused a head injury, the cases are deemed "immediate," meaning you have only 4 hours to investigate.
Florida is, as they say, the trashcan of the South, so we see some pretty disturbing cases. I saw a meth lab right next to a kid's bedroom. He left his bike in the lab. This little kid was constantly going in and out of a meth lab.
When I get to the scene, I have to ask the kids and the parents questions and figure out what's going on. There was this one guy who had been reported for walking around with his pants off and asking his stepdaughter for fellatio. When I asked him why his pants had been off, he told me that his pants just fell down by accident because he was trying to get a cockroach off the wall. You try not to roll your eyes, but come on.
One of my favorites was a father in his 30s, who had a teenage son. The father went on Spring Break to Daytona Beach, and came back with a 20-year-old girlfriend. Turned out the girlfriend was also hooking up with the teenage son. Some people are absurd.
About 90 percent of cases are nonsense. For example, we'll get a wife in the middle of a divorce, saying her husband hit the kids, because she's trying to get custody. It turns out to be completely false. Or you'll get a teacher who calls in and says little Tommy came to school today and said his Dad gave him a beer. So I'll drive out to Tommy's house, which could be 80 miles away, and I ask him what kind of beer he had. "Root beer," he'll say. So I leave.
Sexual abuse reports are not uncommon. Frequently, it's a school guidance counselor or an aunt or uncle who come in to the report those. When I see that sexual abuse has occurred in a home, I try not to get into much detail with the child. You're only allowed to interview kids about their sexual abuse three times, so we try to save those interviews for police and other law enforcement.
In order to remove a child from a home, there has to be extreme risk to the child. If the kids are functioning well, there's not much you can do. I do whatever I can to keep families together — we'll bring in crisis intervention counselors, or recommend a therapist. If you remove a child, you have to go to a judge within 24 hours to explain why you thought you had legal sufficiency to do so, so it's not something we do casually.
When we do remove, I try my best to place kids with a family member. I've driven kids for hours, to another county, so that they can stay with a relative. Putting children in foster care is really not ideal. I've had foster parents who get fed up and say they're done when a kid turns 15. I tell them they'll be charged with abandonment, and they don't care.
I'll often see cases where parents are using drugs, for example, on the weekend while their kids are staying with a grandparent. During the week, they'll be mostly responsible. That's an awful situation, but it's not an extreme risk to the child. We'll offer counseling, but we don't remove. And I'll tell the grandparents they have to stop being enablers.
Fortunately, severe injury cases are rare. But they're very hard to deal with. It's especially tough when you find out the reason the kid was beaten, because it's usually over the smallest, silliest thing.
And sometimes, parents don't even realize what danger they're putting their kids in. Co-sleeping is really the worst trend. I have seen too many infants suffocate because they're sleeping in the same beds as their parents. I also had a guy who was watching cartoons with his baby, while smoking pot. He fell asleep on the baby, and the baby suffocated to death. You don't want to tell these people it's their fault, but in some ways it is. With even the worst parents, though, they do still love their kids.
There are some things we can't prosecute that tend to surprise people. In Florida, physical discipline is legal. You're allowed to spank your kid. Frequently, a guidance counselor will be overly cautious and report what they believe to be abuse, and there's nothing we can do.
Another thing is you can't prosecute a mother for abusing her child while in utero. If a mother was doing drugs throughout her whole pregnancy, but the baby tests negative at birth, we can't do anything. It's not child abuse.
We're not offered much by the way of protection. If I really feel I need police backup for a very violent situation, I can request it, but otherwise, I'm just on my own, in my own car. I also have to walk through jails without an escort. Guys in jail will give me their numbers, and shout all the things they'd like to do to me. They don't usually realize I'm a government worker — a lot of people don't, in fact. People have stigmas about what government workers look like, and that's not me. When I rang a doorbell at a home recently, the father first asked if I was a Jehovah's Witness. With kids, looking young is an asset — they'll disclose everything because I don't look like an adult. Kids under 8 will rat their parents out in a second, because they don't know any better. Older kids are more protective. I always tell my friends who are parents that they need to be very careful what they do and say in front of their younger kids.
I live in a different county from the one I work in, because I don't want to run into parents I've investigated. I did run into one father at Applebee's — when his friends asked how we knew each other, he told them I was the woman from child services who came to investigate him. He was laughing.
If you want to survive in this job, because the hours are hard and the pay isn't great, you have to find humor in things that aren't funny to anyone else. You have to be able to look at some of these situations and say, "Are you freaking serious?"
As told to Hillary Reinsberg.
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