February 9th, 2012
03:55 PM ET

After tragedy, Erin Burnett reflects on the difficult job of the social worker

When Josh Powell killed his two young sons and then himself, he left behind shattered family members–and a distraught social worker, who for months had been assigned to the boys' care, and drove the boys to the Powell home for a court-ordered supervised visit. Powell locked her out, leaving her forced to call 9-1-1 in a desperate effort to get help–a moment captured in a recording released by police:

DISPATCHER: Good morning.

SOCIAL WORKER: Hey, I'm on a supervised visitation for a court ordered exhibit and something really weird is happened. The kids went into the house and the parent, biological parent, his name is Josh Powell, will not let me in the door. What should I do?


911 OPERATOR: How did he gain access to the children before you got there?

SOCIAL WORKER: I was one step in back of them.

911 OPERATOR: So they went into the house and he locked you out?

SOCIAL WORKER: Yes. He shut the door right in my face.

911 OPERATOR: Alright, now it's clear. Your last name? ....

911 OPERATOR: And what agency are you with?

SOCIAL WORKER: Foster Care Resources Network. (Pause). And the kids have been in there by now approximately 10 minutes. And he knows this is a supervised visit.

911 OPERATOR: How many children?

SOCIAL WORKER: Two, Braden is five and Charlie is seven.

Help, in this case, would come too late for Braden and Charlie. And for Erin Burnett, blaming the social worker might be expected, but ultimately it's unfair. "On the surface, it seems everyone did everything not only that was required under the law, but also everything that felt right."

Burnett notes that in communities across the country, social workers face heavier workloads–and fewer resources. "There are so many social workers out there who are trying to do the right thing, and juggle all those cases they have to handle, and they do it with compassion, and they do it with love. And when something goes wrong, their lives are ruined too."

Filed under: Crime • Erin's Essay
soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Jasper C.

    I am a student intern at a DCFS office and as I observe what I will be doing in the near future, I also see the difficulties that Social Workers have to face each day. While Governor Bobby Jindal, is trying to up retirement to age 67 for state workers, the workers often think of situations such as the one above. Everyday Monday-Friday Social Workers go to dangerous areas putting their lives on the line to protect children. They rag out their personal vehicles because there is not enough money for state vehicles to go on home visits. Yes, they get reimbursed for gas (which is not true payment for what they truly pay), but what about the constant wear and tear on thier car. Workers often times, will have to work overtime just to make it convenient for their clients work schedule, and they only get paid from 9am-5pm. Majority have not seen raises in almost a year and when those raises do come they only compensate for the cost they may have spent to take their car to the shop. A Social Workers job is never done there is paper work, court, home visits, and more paper work. From what I've observed Social Workers are so compassionate no matter how much the stresses of the job come about. While they do not have unions that does not omit, that the work that they do is well unappreciated.

    February 13, 2012 at 10:47 am | Reply
  2. karla

    @Sion – The SW said things seemed strange, probably because she didn't really know what was going on, but things were different than normal. Like i always say, we are social workers, NOT mind readers!!!

    February 12, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Reply
  3. PAPilot

    Those kids died because of her incompetence. The second he locked the door, he broke the law, and she should have explained that clearly to the 911 dispatcher – that he just COMMITTED A CRIME and that police should be dispatched immediately. Instead she chose to minimize the situation, be unsure of what was going on, and in the end, act as an accomplice in killing those two children. Had she been more on the ball, this would not have happened. Period.

    February 11, 2012 at 11:00 am | Reply
  4. Anita Bolton-Wood

    If case/social workers have a workload of 500-600 cases per year as mentioned above, it is all the more crucial there is proper protocol in place for reporting emergencies and not leave case workers floundering, having to deal with lengthy explanations to 911Operators, especially considering the highly emotive situations they are dealing with on a daily basis.

    As we know now, things can turn ugly and desperate in a New York minute and what back up is there for a poor case worker if they can't get the required response from 911 because of confusion about what the emergency actually entails.

    With so many cases and therefore so much potential for volatility, it is almost imperative to implement coded reporting to 911 Operations.

    February 11, 2012 at 2:11 am | Reply
  5. Anita Bolton-Wood

    I think it is sad Social/Case workers do not have a set way of reporting or a Code system for addressing serious problems re supervised visits to 911 Operators.

    If it is set out in a simple way both parties know straight away what type of Emergency Services are required.

    The case worker in this instance asked the 911 Operator at the end of their conversation "what should I do ? " and the 911 Operator told her to stay with her car, so Police could find her, that's why he asked the make and color of her car etc.

    At that point no one was to know what type of scenario was about to unfold – the way it was reported was that the case worker was locked out of the house she was supposed to be visiting, which looking at it objectively isn't much of an emergency and who could have foreseen that a father on the other side of the door would take to his sons with a hatchet and then blow the place up in a gasoline fuelled inferno........

    However if the case worker had been able to use specific key words or a code for the 911 Operator to take action, there would have been no need for a discussion about what side of the door he or she was at or who was locked out and who wasn't or what the color of her car was.

    For the safety of all case workers and their charges, PLEASE implement a CODE SYSTEM for reporting to 911Operators.

    Thank You

    February 11, 2012 at 1:31 am | Reply
    • El Flaco

      I agree. I know that it means more case workers, more training, and a bigger budget for social work agencies, but it is worth it. We must protect children. We can skimp on everything else.

      February 14, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Reply
  6. donna green

    thank you erin for your report on the social worker. but the cuts not only make the workers job harder. they also make the childrens life harder. i've been a foster parent for 28 years ,and i see the social workers have to make some pretty tuff choses that would break your heart. that safey net that ROMNEY says the poor have, has alot of holes in it for the poorest of the poor the children. it just doesn't work, and some times us foster parents have to put our owm money in to support the kids and give them the things children should have. more should be said about this, the system is falling apart, it just doesn't work any more. we are the forgotten people, HELP!!!

    February 10, 2012 at 8:01 am | Reply
    • Lili

      While I agree with the post in general and find the eciacffy of social workers questionable at best, I would like to take issue with certain aspects:But there was a time when Americans got along without social workers. They somehow managed to give birth, raise their children, make a living, and take care of their elderly, all without help from Social Services. How was that possible?Perhaps because people today are less willing to spend their own time and money caring for their own family members. Years ago, people had large families and it was not uncommon for one sibling to be the primary caregiver for her aged parents. Today, that is not the case. This is what your tax dollars buy: a group that advocates for left-wing issues, lobbies to protect itself and expand its turf, and helps elect candidates who further these ends.Definitely a Soviet style of doing businessWhat makes this "Soviet?" Is there any group that doesn't advocate its issues, lobby to protect its turf and elect candidates who further these ends? That's as true of the National Rifle Association or the US Chamber of Commerce as it is of the NASW. And it's not tax dollars that supports the NASW, its the association members' dues.I came here looking for some intelligent criticism, and all I found were cheap shots at a predictable target. Really, you can do better, Baron.

      March 4, 2012 at 10:29 am | Reply
  7. Mary Turney

    How wonderful to hear Erin Burnett acknowledge the unheralded and often maligned work that social work professionals do every day, frequently at great risk and with an emotional toll to themselves. Whether in the arena of child welfare as in this instance, mental health, health care, addiction services, schools or other service areas, skilled and compassionate social workers make immeasurable contributions to society at every level.

    February 10, 2012 at 1:18 am | Reply
  8. Pete

    You hit the nail on the head. Let's all pray that the economic recovery picks up steam and speed. Everything you’ve said about those special individuals serving their community as social workers could be reiterated for police and fire personnel as well. Which do you think is harder, the sudden onset of economic collapse or the prolonged hardship of recessionary conditions?

    February 9, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Reply
  9. Sion Davies

    I'm sorry but the social worker could of done something more. Because she spent months on end with them every sunday she came close to them and in a way "trusted" them. So when he locked the doors she didn't take as serious as she should of and when she called 9-1-1 she said "something really weird is happened" i wouldn't say that as weird i would of immediately taken action. Also when she said "i'm going to drive off the driveway because i smell gasoline" that's also a really big obvious problem. she sounded like she didn't take it seriously because she knew them well. i'm not blaming the social worker at all.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Reply
    • Laura Miller

      I think she took it very seriously. She called 911, after all, and when the dispatcher said that officers had to attend to life-threatening situations first, she insisted that this could be life-threatening. What else could she have done?

      February 9, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Reply
    • Danielle R

      Really? I work in the field of child welfare and I am appalled anyone would say this. All I can say is you need to follow a social worker who does this type of work and hopefully you will gain some kind of understanding of what this job entails. My thoughts and prayers are with this woman as no one knows what she is experiencing right now other than her fellow social workers

      February 10, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Reply
      • Sion Davies

        As i said i wasn't blaming here I'm just pointing out the things that "seemed" strange. But would partially agree with me, with her trusted them. or not.

        February 10, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Reply
  10. Marc Campbell

    In Conn. the caseload for social workers at the state approached 500-600 cases per . Great point
    and introspection for all of us.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply

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