This paper analyzes autobiographical essays from women who work as social service workers in child-protection agencies. Working long hours in relatively low-paying jobs, these women have limited prestige and autonomy and increasingly, come under close scrutiny and public criticism. They are clearly exploited in terms of the emotional and "mothering" labor they are expected to perform and are held personally accountable for daily decisions that could have dire consequences for the children they serve to protect. This paper is an investigation of how their narratives explain and justify their willingness to continue working in these situations and how their professional identities are defined and defended.
Keywords: social service, women, labor, children, narrative
DCF in the News
"A year ago this month, Erica Jones was a 27-year-old woman with a bachelor's degree in political science. She had just enrolled in a two-month training program on how to become a state child welfare counselor. By the time she was fired by the state Department of Children and Families last week, Jones was handling 50 child abuse investigations, even though she had been on the job less than a year and lacked full certification as an investigator."
St. Petersburg Times, July 17, 2002
"Two workers with the Department of Children & Families resigned Wednesday, the same day that 13-month-old Christopher Cunningham died. It was the third child homicide this year in Brevard County, each preceded by apparent mistakes by child-welfare workers. "It seems evident that high-quality casework has not been occurring in Brevard County," DCF spokeswoman Yvonne Vassel said."
Orlando Sentinel, March 15, 2003
"Embattled Department of Children & Families Secretary Kathleen Kearney resigned Tuesday; four months after the case of a missing 5-year-old girl put the department under scrutiny."
South Florida Sun Sentinel, August 13, 2002
"The family says DCF is trying to cover it tracks because someone dropped the ball." We are not satisfied with DCF's conclusion that it properly handled the Behazadpour matter. I question their policies and practices handling sexual abuse cases of children, particularly that of Nikki's case," says a family spokesperson."
WFTV.com, January 26, 2004
DCF Workers Beleaguered and Belittled
These are the stories that appear almost weekly in local newspapers. Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF) workers are regularly vilified, not only in newspapers but on radio and television stations as well. The resignation of DCF head, Kathleen Kearney, even made the national news (NBC Nightly News, August 13, 2002). Given the demanding working conditions and bad press, it is no wonder that there is a high turnover rate among DCF's child protection workers. More surprising, however, is that some stay--and in fact, the distribution is bimodal. There are many who come and leave quickly but there is also a surprising number who have worked for DCF for many years.
It is this latter group that concerns us here, the people who continue to work in an environment where overwork (50-60 hours a week) and under-pay ($31K average) is typical, the responsibility is overwhelming (caseloads of 50 or more), and there is little appreciation--either among the clients they attend or the public they serve. Why do they do it? How do they explain their willingness to continue participating in a system that all agree is dysfunctional? What accounts do they offer for the apparent contradiction between their own best interest and their willingness to serve? In this paper, I present child protective worker's stories, in their own words, their accounts of how they got where they are and why they stay. In addition, I place these accounts within a larger theoretical context that helps to explain their tolerance of the contradictions inherent to their situations by way of a set of counterstories constructed to prevent or repair damage to their individual identities. …