Perspective of a Child Protective Services Investigator for the State of Tennessee

Have you ever sat and wondered what happens with the children who didn’t get the chance to grow up in a home with a parent or parents who are fully equipped to meet their needs? What about the kids who show up at school and are just a little “scrappy”? If you have ever sat and wondered about what happens to kids after the news headline you might have seen while scrolling, keep reading.
First, I want to introduce myself, for privacy reasons I can't share my name but I currently work as a supervising case manager for a non-profit in Nashville, TN. Prior to my career in foster care, I worked at a Child Protective Services Investigator (CPS) for the state of Tennessee. I am a Licensed Masters level Social Worker, or LMSW. I have spent my entire adult life to this point training and educating myself in Child
welfare, trauma, and the foster care system. I don’t know if I would call myself an expert yet, but I’m working on it. The foster care system is complicated. It’s messy and most of the time, it doesn’t make any sense.
During my undergraduate studies in Arkansas, I was horrified to learn of the condition of most children entering the foster care system across the country. I learned that while the goal of the state is family preservation, there are times when that is not possible. Most of the time, there is a significant safety concern or imminent danger that prompts the removal of the children into the foster care
system. This process can feel rushed, and the children are expected to pack up their entire lives as quickly as possible.
Sometimes there wasn’t even time for that, and the child is removed without any of their things. Sometimes a child is abandoned for different reasons, so they come to foster care with absolutely nothing belonging to them. If the children are “lucky” enough to come with anything belongings at all, nine times out of ten, all their belongings will be thrown into trash bags. As a college student, I was horrified to learn this. Nothing diminishes the worth of human life more than throwing all their belongings in a trash bag. It seems like such a simple thing, but the message each soul receives when this happens is something like: “I am worthless. I am trash, just like my only possessions”.  A message that is often believed by these vulnerable kids. As a college student, I knew this was not right. I had the privilege of creating bag drive with some of my peers. People could donate new or gentle used bags to be provided to children entering the foster care system. The goal being that no matter how often they moved, they had bags that belonged to them. This was just the beginning.
When I moved to Nashville, as a CPS worker, I was the frontline working to preserve families when possible and utilizing removing children into foster care when safety could not be reached otherwise. I experienced firsthand as an employee what it was like to put children’s belongings into trash bags when nothing else was available. I was with numerous children from age 3 to 18 who had been abandoned with absolutely nothing to their name. There were times where we had the resources to provide the children with bags and clothes right away, and times we did not. I vividly remember one experience of an 8-year-old who had been left at school. He was a car rider whose ride never showed up. I spent hours trying to locate his mother or any other family. None could be found. We sat in my office while I did the endless paperwork required to find a foster home for him. While we sat there, he asked me if his mom was dead. This moment will stick with me forever. It was about 12:00 AM at this point. I answered him truthfully, because at that point we could not locate her and did not know if she was alive or not. I told him that I didn’t know, but if and when we found her, our team would do everything we could to help her. Later that night I dropped him off at his foster home with nothing but his backpack from school and the clothes on his back. The foster dad left the house at 2:00 AM to go to
Walmart so that this little boy would have clothes to wear the next day. Thankfully we were able to locate his mother. She was alive and was able to get the help she needed after her son entered foster care. Years later it sticks with me that there were times that like this little boy, I dropped children off at
homes with either their few belongings in a trash bag or two, or worse, with nothing at all.
There is one other story that I want to share because of the impact it has had on my career. I had the privilege of working with a 9-year-old boy when I was about a year into my time with my foster care agency. He came to us from another foster home, outside of our agency. I already worked with 3 of his siblings, so we were working towards reunifying siblings. At the time he came to us, he had been in foster care for about a year. He had been in the previous placement for about 8 months. I picked him up from that home and was horrified as a filled my trunk with trash bags that contained all his belongings.
This boy had been in foster care for over a year, with the resources to support the foster family and give this boy some of the dignity and worth that is due every human. Instead, we packed everything he owned into trash bags. I was furious. We got to my office and spent a couple of hours folding and sorting
his clothes into brand new suitcases that had been donated to my organization. Before we started, I gave him the choice of helping me or doing something else. This little boy sat with me and organized his clothing to be packed into his new bags. I watched the emotions and disbelief when I explained that the bags were his to keep, no matter where he lived. Years later I have the honor of knowing that he will never again be forced to pack his life into a trash bag. He, like every other human I have met, is worth more than that.
If you’re still reading at this point, this is what I want you to know: The impact of the “small” things is indescribable. Little actions matter. The messages we send through our action (or inaction) have a lasting impact on the people around us. Foster care can be a world that takes away the dignity and worth of the people impacted by it, but there is a chance to change the stigma. No child (or adult)
should be without the resources to have a backpack, duffle bag, or suitcase. Something that most people might not ever think about has such a great reach in the lives of the most vulnerable part of our population. It’s important to know what is happening in our community, in our very own neighborhoods. I know without a doubt that I will never take advantage of the fact that I personally own
different bags that I can pack my life into when needed. But I also hope to live in a world where no child is ever forced to tote their life around in a trash bag, because they are worth so much more.