CPS Reports: Witness to a Death
Stories from the Field
A baby is a blank check made payable to the human race. -Barbara Christine Seifert
My first encounter with death in my career in Child Welfare came less than one month into my active service. It started as a one-hour response call (my first), but now that I think back, it was like no other one-hour I ever encountered afterwards. Instead of a solid report on Indiana Department of Child Services letterhead, it came as a hand-written note on a scrap of paper. No name for who called it in. No questions to discern what exactly might be going on. Just this note: 8-month-old baby is in CPS custody, is with [the mother], who is overdosing on meth. There is a court order. Address is blah, blah, blah.
Because I was so new, I have to thank my colleague, FCM Vicki Simpson, for coaching me through the next few moments before I left. Vicki is one of the greats; she is extremely dedicated and willing to go any distance. She gets the stakes like few in our field do. She’s also extremely organized. She advised me to look up the case in Quest, our system that contained court records for our cases. We found the court order together. Only 10 days prior the court had ordered there to be no more unsupervised visits between the parents and children due to multiple dirty screens by both. “Dirty screens” is shorthand for testing positive for substance use—in this case meth amphetamine, which is a very serious drug with very serious consequences for babies being supervised by people using it.
To put this into proper perspective, let’s just say that if you eat, your brain will dump about 50 units of dopamine into your brain chemistry, ensuring you will do it again and again. If you have an orgasm, you will receive 100-200 units of dopamine. Do a line of cocaine or smoke some rock, and you will find your brain bathed in a delightful glow of dopamine that is lit by 350 units. Heroin will bring you 500 units, along with some serotonin, and a stunning escape from your day-to-day norm until it becomes your day-to-day norm.
But meth amphetamine? It will drop you into a pool of dopamine that is 1,200 units strong. It bathes the whole brain in it. This is why meth is the hardest, most painful drug to recover from. The recovery rate, defined as being clean for 3+ years, is legit 5%, the lowest of all addictive substances. It is like asking someone to pull their lips away from God’s lips. Ain’t nobody gonna walk away from kissing God for just any old reason. This includes crying babies, wailing babies, and babies that have suddenly gone quiet after not being fed for 2 or 3 days.
And yet here was this court order that said if Mom didn’t stop kissing her God, she couldn’t see her babies. And here was this report that said mom was overdosing on methamphetamine and had one of her babies. The stakes were death, the highest that could happen in Child Welfare. It was February and having already dropped 6 inches of snow on the ground the night before, Mother Nature was spitting fat, fluffy snowflakes from a blue, sunny sky as I drove to the address.
I had printed that court order on the advice of Vicki. Thank God I had that court order printed. When anticipating a child removal in the state of Indiana, case managers are required to call for the assistance of police. This is for their safety and the safety of the families. On this particular occasion the call resulted in a very tall Native American officer and his punky little white-boy partner, who I would later work with on other extreme cases like this one. As I was about to learn, and would learn again and again, these guys were heroes. We stepped up to the door and, frail newbie that I was, I looked to them to do the knocking. They looked at me as if this was my show and I was now on stage and had better perform soon. The punky one left to walk to the back door.
I knocked and waited. I knocked again and waited. Eventually we heard shuffling, and a voice so delicate I thought it was female, ask, “Who is it?” The tall officer gave me an encouraging nod.
“I’m Belle Pfau, with Department of Child Services,” I said, the most ignominious of starts. While I had no idea at the time, I might as well have said I was a Nazi to a hiding person of Jewish heritage. We heard no more from the other side of the door. The snow kept falling and the sun was setting.
Huddled on the porch, the officers listened to my story as I had it, which was just the short note about the overdose, the baby being present, and the court order. Their ears perked up at the mention of the court order and they said they would have to call their Sergeant to know what to do next. They took the order and advised me to sit in my car while they did so. It was parked four or five houses down, and there I sat in the twilight, watching as six more police cars and an ambulance showed up. My supervisor was calling me every 15 minutes, frantic and wondering if she should come out to join me. I finally convinced her that I was alright, safe with the police, and that I was born for this. The flakes of falling snow had grown larger and were now coming down with such ferocity that my car was blanketed.
Ninety minutes later I looked up through the windshield-wipered front window to see the enormous Native American officer walking through the snow, carefully snuggling the infant in his arms. His police hat stood out under the streetlamp. It reminded me of a scene from The Oklahoma City bombing, just an emergency worker coming into focus from an obscured and chaotic scene cradling a child. Honestly, it was beautiful. The baby, miraculously, was smiling. He looked like Dopey from the Seven Dwarves, all big ears and a wide grin. The officer handed me the baby and said, “Don’t leave yet,” and walked back to the scene of flashing lights and snow.
Taking the baby into my car, I examined every part of him. I noted the stinking sleeper that was too small for him, and the bottle filled with milk so coagulated it was as solid as Greek yogurt, but not nearly as white. The child had a scratch or two, but otherwise seemed unharmed. He didn’t seem to mind that I had him, and responded to me in every way a baby should, as I knew babies at that time. He smiled, he grasped what I offered him, he vocalized, and he moved every which way he could. I had no idea at that time there were fine motor skills and brain chemistry I was missing, which were being hammered out in this dramatic scene full of cops and EMTs and this baby’s lost tribe of dwarves, who appeared as firemen suddenly at my car door.
The fire truck had arrived on scene sometime after I was given the baby. It ambled onto the avenue lined with older homes, a car-lined street with room for only one vehicle at a time. It originally drove right past my car and into the swarm of lights outside the address I had come to, a little two-story house bedecked with architectural ornaments in the German style right on the corner. The corner was blocked by the phalanx of police cars and the ambulance, which was stuck in the snow. I’d watched as they carted out a stretcher with someone on it, loaded up, and about 10 police officers, 6 firemen, and an EMT pushed the ambulance out of its icy casing. The EMT jumped in and off it went. Afterwards, the fire truck had backed up to my car and stopped. The baby was getting cranky and I was opening up Netflix on my phone, so hadn’t notice its approach.
A small fireman with a very large beard stepped off the truck and up to my door. He explained that he was a medic and would examine the baby to see if he, too, needed to go to the hospital. As he talked, the other five firemen appeared behind him. They looked so similar it was impossible to think of them as anything but six of the seven dwarves from Snow White. They seemed to recognize their brother, the little dopey baby in my backseat, because they let out a collective “Awwww” when they saw him, every single one of them, all at the same time, all turning their heads softly to the left as they did so. It was a wildly emotional and tender moment in the midst of all this adrenaline-provoking action. The medic approved the baby for removal by CPS, and the firetruck kept on inching backwards to the other end of the street.
Then the tall officer appeared again. He told me I could go in and have a look around, take what pictures I needed. I was not entirely sure how to do this with the baby, and he must have read that on me, because he spontaneously said, “I’ll stay with the baby.” I grabbed my camera and my notepad and marched up to the front door, leaving my car running with the baby snug in a car seat, and the officer standing sentinel at the passenger door.
The front door was standing open and the first thing I saw upon approach was a young shirtless man in handcuffs shivering in a chair. His head hung low, obscuring his face. By the chair was an old brown couch with an enormous wet spot on it. The smell of urine and liquor was thick in this part of the house. It smelled like the alley behind every jail I’d ever visited. In the background there were police milling all over the place.
I was taken to the room where the baby had been found. It was an average working-class bedroom, classic wood paneling with an old king-sized mattress set on the floor surrounded by mounds of clothes. The smells of sweat and layers of tobacco filled the room. Detritus of assorted kinds had accumulated on the dresser and the bed stand, but nothing stood out. In the corner was a crib, and I was told it was from this crib that the baby had been retrieved, coagulated milk bottle and all. Who knew how long the baby had been stored there while the parents were kissing their God? Long enough for milk to turn to yogurt, and become a yellowish color.
I was taken to the man in handcuffs. He looked like a background actor in a Bon Jovi video; dirty blond mullet, muscular, in tight jeans. He was crying. He was also angry. I tried to talk to him, but all he would say was, “I told her…she called anyway.” Then he would shiver and spit and just looked generally like he wanted to punch something. I was grateful for the handcuffs. “She” was anonymous, a person also in the house, whom I never met. Not for lack of trying, though.
Having gained all I could from the scene, I started back to the office with this little baby in a state-issued car seat. His six-year-old brother was already waiting with my supervisor who, I learned later, had been running around the office for the previous few hours saying to anyone who would listen, “She’s going to quit! She’s going to quit!” She needn’t have worried. I was more than committed than ever.
She had also called the relative placement and demanded they bring the little boy to the office. She had interviewed the relative, who had seemed genuinely surprised that the baby was in danger. Like she thought she had handled that, and that baby was somebody else’s burden to bear, even though the court had ordered her to be the legal caregiver, and she was collecting payments as a foster parent for him. The baby just did not register with this relative at all. He was not a thought in her mind. My supervisor had already delved into documentation on the case and knew that this baby was in this mess for reasons that could have been foreseen by any cognizant case manager and her functioning supervisor. Sadly, for this baby and his older brother, the family had neither a cognizant case manager nor a functioning supervisor.
Right before I’d left the scene, I’d asked the tall officer if the mom had died. “No, but she had overdosed. She’d been lying in her own piss for a full day before you got called. Can you believe it?” He shook his head.
I left feeling like a million bucks. This is what I signed up for: Saving babies and parents alike. Less than a month into the job I had been handed what felt like a gift of honest intervention and made a life-saving difference. I held this feeling for one week, at which point I received a call from the incognizant case manager informing me that the mom had died. Oh, and by the way, did I have any objections to placing the children back with the same relative they’d been placed with before? Uh…hell yes, I objected to that.
I should have run then. I should have said this was unacceptable, but I was hooked. I wanted to give my all to these children and families, because it was quickly becoming apparent that few others in my DCS office would. It was certainly obvious the police wouldn’t. When I told the police Sergeant the mom had died and asked if they would be pressing charges against the drug-dealing daddy who had given her the meth and hovered over her immobile body for 24 hours while she lay halfway between life and death, he just laughed.