At Christmastime, Bringing the Gift of Child Safety

December 27, 2017

It’s the Thursday night before Christmas, and DFCS case manager Bridgett McAfee is making contact with a family on her caseload. She’s standing at the door of a room in a run-down motel in a section of Savannah left behind by progress. Four young children under the age of eight are in the room, the youngest in diapers peering between her mother’s legs as Ms. McAfee talks to the parents.

“I’m trying to get this situated for you,” she explains to the parents, who came to the Department’s attention because the children weren’t attending school. When the children were last in school, a report was made that one of the children was dirty and smelled badly.

A harsh incandescent light from the room’s bare interior illuminates a document Ms. McAfee is sharing with the parents: a “safety plan” agreement that they will enroll the children back in school after the Christmas break and ensure the two youngest children are taken for well-child doctor’s appointments. As they talk, people shuffle in and out of the room next door, a chemical smell wafting out. A few doors down, a young man enters a room then shortly exits, his furtive actions and demeanor indicative of what police would describe as drug activity.

“Do you have any family support in this area?” Ms. McAfee asks. They respond affirmatively. “That’s good to have,” she says.

While most of us spend the holiday season celebrating at home with our own children and families, child protection workers such as Ms. McAfee and her colleagues on the “night shift” at Chatham County DFCS have the responsibility of caring for the children of others. During just the 48 hours composing Christmas Eve and Christmas Day last year, DFCS’ child abuse hotline received over 135 calls. Most of those calls could be handled by providing the family services -- referrals for benefits or health care, case management to ensure a child receives proper parenting. For DFCS’ social workers, it’s most often a question of putting in long hours of work to find the family, to assess their needs and support systems, and to connect them with the basics they need to survive and, hopefully, thrive.

But every call has to be taken seriously and a social worker sent out to see the child as soon as possible, Ms. McAfee reminds me. “You have to see that child to make sure he’s safe.” Sometimes the search for the family isn’t fruitful, as when we spent an hour at twilight trying to determine in collaboration with law enforcement if a family still lived in what appeared to be an abandoned house in central Savannah. Asking the right questions, conducting a full assessment, and doing that time-consuming work on the street, Ms. McAfee noted, “can be all that’s between a protected child and one who’s unsafe.”

On this night, the calls that Ms. McAfee, her co-worker Akeya Hurt, and their supervisor Taleshia Wilson received were, fortunately, not life-threatening situations. But those do happen, often at night. “There are no typical days,” Ms. Hurt reminded me. A look back at DFCS’ intakes on Christmas 2016 demonstrates her point. I reviewed cases of children who were born suffering the shock of withdrawal from the Xanax and opiates their mothers had taken during pregnancy; of a child traumatized when his drunken father tore down the apartment door after midnight on Christmas and beat his mother; and of a young girl who was accidentally hit by a car when no one was watching her.

When a child arrives at the emergency room with an abusive head injury on Christmas Eve, or a sick, suffering child is born at 1 a.m. on Christmas morn to a heroin-addicted mother, child protection personnel will respond at all hours, no matter the date on the calendar. Medical providers, law enforcement personnel, social workers, and foster parents will drop their own holiday plans to care for this child as if he or she were their own. And because we value the privacy of these children and their families, most of us will never know that help was provided.

The family in the motel was struggling to save enough to return to a real home. For poor families, however, it takes awhile to come up with the traditionally-required rental deposit and first and last months’ rent.

In Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is given the opportunity to see clearly his own life, and that gift of observation is what changes his heart and leads him to have compassion for his fellow human. This holiday season, I hope you will take time to remember that as you’re celebrating, as you settle down for your warm winter’s nap, somewhere in Georgia there is a child protection worker braving the night to bring a child the gift of safety and protection.

They may not have a sleigh and reindeer, but that’s a mighty valuable present.

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