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Workers jump in to help families in crisis

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AMES, ANN MARIE
March 17, 2013

Becky Boylan sat on the living room floor in her snow boots. She wrapped her arms around her knees and bit one thumbnail.

Gently she asked a question that would make a lot of women cringe.

"Can you think of a relationship you've been in that was positive?"

Patricia, who also was sitting on the living room floor, didn't cringe. Once, she said, when she was a teenager, she had a boyfriend who was kind-hearted and thoughtful.

"But it kind of faded away," she said.

Briefly, Patricia ran down the list of the other important men in her life. Her father died when she was 12 or 13. She hadn't really known him because he had been in prison much of her life.

Her mother had five children with another man, but he was never a father to Patricia. He had been abusive to Patricia's mother.

Her most recent partner had fought with Patricia and hit her in front of her 10-year-old son, James. He is incarcerated at the Rock County Jail.

James' dad lives in Rockford, Ill., and rarely sees the boy.

***

The sad list leads to the reason Boylan for months has been working with Patricia and James. Boylan is a social worker with Rock County Child Protective Services.

Under the umbrella of the county's human services department, CPS is the organization responsible for following up on reports of child abuse or neglect. Workers take reports, determine if reports are valid, determine if children are safe in their homes, create plans to return children safely to their families and help families achieve those goals.

Last week, Rock County CPS had 216 cases being assessed and 99 ongoing cases open, according to division data.

Boylan is an ongoing services caseworker and meets with parents and children to make sure the parents are meeting goals needed for reunification.

In honor of Social Workers Month, which is in March, CPS invited The Gazette to meet with two clients and their social workers. In both cases, the identities of the parents and children were to be kept anonymous.

‘Wanting their children'

Patricia's situation is one of the good ones, Boylan said during a recent visit to Patricia's apartment in downtown Janesville.

CPS in November removed James from Patricia's home because of the ongoing domestic violence between Patricia and her partner. He was placed in foster care in Orfordville and came home in early January, Boylan said.

Unfortunately, he came home angry at his family situation. He has been acting out at school and at the Janesville YMCA/Boys & Girls Club.

James' anger is Patricia's biggest concern.

"The only thing that scares me about him is his demanding ways," Patricia said. "I don't want him to get aggressive with it."

Mother and son are in therapy with two counselors in Janesville. Patricia is learning about red flags that signal unhealthy relationships. James will likely learn anger management skills.

Boylan communicates with both counselors as well as James' school. She gives Patricia—and other clients—rides to counseling and other appointments. When James was in foster care, Boylan drove him between Janesville and Orfordville for visits with his mom.

Boylan helped Patricia fill out paperwork to get James on the waiting list for a Big Brother through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Rock, Walworth and Jefferson Counties. She talks with Patricia about James' behavior and gives Patricia feedback about disciplining James.

During a visit in February, Patricia suggested things Patricia should mention to her therapist, including Patricia's history of unhealthy relationships with men.

Boylan said her job is all about building relationships to make homes safer. To do so, she puts herself into the shoes of the parents whose children have been placed in foster care. She knows she would be angry and stressed if it were her.

"Really, that's what you want to see—them upset about what happened and wanting their children so much," Boylan said.

‘I trusted you'

Tammy woke from a fitful nap. She didn't know why she ached all over.

Her daughter Maddie explained. While Tammy was sleeping, someone had broken into the house and had beaten her, Maddie said.

Terrified, Tammy called the police.

Another day, Tammy called the police when 6-year-old Maddie said a man was hiding in a crawlspace in their Janesville home. Police found no one.

Day by day, Tammy's paranoia deepened. She wouldn't let Maddie go to school, and she wouldn't let anyone in the house, she said.

***

Luckily for Tammy, Shanna Wehri has a kind face. When Wehri knocked, Tammy opened the door.

"You just didn't seem threatening to me," Tammy said to Wehri. "I just had a gut feeling you would be able to help me."

Wehri is an assessment worker with Rock County Child Protective Services. Her job is to investigate reports of child abuse or neglect and determine what services are needed. She determines if a home is safe for children; if it's not, she creates a plan to change that.

Wehri wouldn't say who called CPS to report concerns for Maddie's safety, but the first call came in October. In general, calls come from police, doctors, teachers and family members. When a case is opened, assessment workers have 60 days to decide how to handle it.

Wehri opened Tammy's case in October. Every few months, just as the 60 days were almost up, another report would come in. Wehri never found evidence of neglect, so the case was never assigned to an ongoing caseworker. Instead, Wehri worked for months with Tammy and Maddie, stopping at the house between other calls.

When Wehri met Tammy, she hadn't showered in days. Her house wasn't necessarily dirty, but it wasn't up to Tammy's usual neat-as-a-pin standards, according to one of Tammy's friends.

For a number of weeks, Tammy called Wehri multiple times per day. Among other things, she told Wehri that someone was moving by remote control an ottoman in Tammy's living room.

Despite all this, Tammy was feeding Maddie. She was giving her baths. She wasn't hurting her. Wehri never found evidence that Maddie was abused or neglected.

What she did realize was that the little girl was telling stories that fed into her mom's growing paranoia. When Wehri suggested Tammy seek mental health treatment, Tammy finally listened.

"Even though I didn't know what was wrong, I knew something was wrong," Tammy said. "I guess I trusted you (Wehri) because you were from child services. If anybody was going to make sure Maddie was safe, it was you."

In her darkest day, right before Wehri took her to the hospital to get checked in for inpatient psychiatric treatment, Tammy, 43, told Wehri to take Maddie away.

"I really believed all these terrible things were happening," Tammy said. "I really didn't think my daughter was safe."

In late February when she picked up Tammy for an appointment with The Gazette, Wehri's jaw dropped. Instead of the woman who wouldn't get out of her pajamas, Tammy was dressed in jeans, a nice sweater and jewelry. Her hair was styled, and she was smiling.

Doctors have determined Tammy had a psychotic break, although the reason is yet to be determined. She has been prescribed medication for psychosis, and doctors took her off some medication she had been prescribed before she moved to Janesville last fall.

It took hearing it from a Child Protective Services worker for Tammy to accept she might be ill, she said. She knows without help she could have lost her daughter and could have gotten much more ill.

The women chatted, and Tammy occasionally chuckled at what in retrospect seems like silly behavior. She was grateful for Wehri's patience and surprised to hear that Wehri on that day had files on her desk for 20 open cases.

"Ugh, that's a lot," Tammy said. "I don't envy you."



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