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January 20, 2014 permalink
Massachusetts is undergoing a foster care panic, started by the disappearance of five-year-old Jeremiah Oliver after social workers failed to intervene in his family. As part of the flurry of news articles, social workers have disclosed that the Leominster DCF office had a policy of strip searching children with allegations of, or a history of, physical abuse. According to the caseworkers' union, the strip searches were extended to children where there was no allegation of physical abuse. The policy was called "viewing bodies".
'Strip search' policy prompted some DCF workers to leave
LEOMINSTER — In the Department of Children and Families office in Leominster, social workers say they are forced to "strip search" children receiving DCF services when there are allegations of, or there is a history of, physical abuse.
Some social workers have left because of the policy, says social worker Joseph Manna, who works in that office and is also a regional vice president of the union that represents DCF caseworkers. The policy was instituted a year ago in the Leominster office by Area Director Marcia Roddy, he said.
Ms. Roddy also oversees the Whitinsville office. Ms. Roddy did not return a telephone call seeking comment for this story.
Since the "viewing bodies" policy was implemented, Mr. Manna has sought a legal opinion on it and has also gone to labor relations and outside agencies including the Office of the Child Advocate with his concerns, he said.
When questioned about the policy in the Leominster office, DCF spokeswoman Cayenne Isaksen issued the following statement: "We have a screening unit comprised of social workers and supervisors who receive reports of abuse or neglect, and then conduct interviews and checks to determine whether or not the Department should intervene to assess the safety of the children. The Department's intake policy requires that we view (meaning see the child) all children in a household in our response/investigation and in our ongoing work that we view each child. Practice guidance generally directs workers to follow the evidence and nature of the allegation in viewing a child's body. If we are investigating an allegation of physical abuse we would expect, in most cases, that there would be a need to view and, in some cases if necessary, document the evidence of abuse."
But, according to Mr. Manna, the "viewing bodies" policy in the Leominster office requires social workers to view children's bodies not under investigation for physical abuse. Those searches, he said, are not allowed under state law.
"The NCAO (North Central Area Office) management has created a policy independent of the department," he said. "The new policy has been referred to as 'viewing bodies.' The viewing bodies policy requires social workers in the NCAO to view children's bodies routinely, without the authority of the 51B (investigation) and without probable cause or evidence. The policy continues despite the DCF Western regional chief legal counsel's decision not to declare the viewing bodies policy as legal."
Ms. Roddy, he alleges instituted the policy of her own volition that goes beyond the scope of DCF rules and regulations.
"We don't have blanket discretion to view their bodies all the time," Mr. Manna said. "We have the skills to look at the evidence to determine if it is necessary — not do blanket strip searches of children. Since all this stuff has been going on (Oliver case) it died down a little, but there is still an expectation."
Social worker and emergency response worker Sara A. Vasquez, who has worked in the North Central office for six years and previously in DCF's Dorchester office for six years, said she was "forced" to have children remove all of their clothing and put on bathing suits so she could inspect their bodies — including teen boys.
"Normally, we have a policy to view an injury, if there is a report of a specific incident," Ms. Vasquez said. "You view the body, taking into account age and how it will emotionally affect them and do it in the safest way possible during investigations and ongoing casework."
But, a year ago, she said Ms. Roddy took that policy further.
Ms. Vasquez said under the new policy in Leominster, she was required to have children disrobe routinely, including two teen boys who were reluctant when she asked them to put on bathing suits for her.
"I was forced to do it," she said. "It was blanket — across the board — and we could no longer assess it. I work with adolescents. It is normally inappropriate to ask a 17-year-old boy to show me his body. They're taught not to show their body at school. When I went to management and told them I couldn't do it because one boy stated there were no injuries, I was told, 'It is not good enough. Go back and make him disrobe.' Now, it is normal practice. We're forced to look at teens, and have parents or school nurses present, even if there is no evidence or any report of neglect or abuse. If it is an ongoing case with a history of abuse, they want it done regularly and some cases are ongoing for years."
Both Mr. Manna and Ms. Vasquez say many school nurses have voiced concerns about the inappropriateness of these body searches and some teens expressed they felt it was a violation of their human rights.
Mr. Manna said in one instance, a boy with autism was forced to strip down in the school nurse's office, despite the nurse's concerns.
"Some don't do it, but then it falls on the social worker if anything happens," Mr. Manna said.
An experienced investigator who was forced to view the bodies of teenage boys, he said, and didn't feel it was appropriate quit about six months ago after she was repeatedly told by management to "do it anyway." "If you don't do it, it's your a**," Ms. Vasquez said. "Everyone is scared not to. You hear over and over, just do it and CYA — cover your a**. They really only care who's responsible in the end if anything happened."
Source: Worcester Telegram and Gazette