the Licensing Board

FBI

“Hi, Chad, I’m Fred Hill, from the FBI.”

I shook the agent’s hand, confused. “O-kay, Mr. Hill, how can I help you?”

“Well, first, why don’t you take a seat.”

He indicated a hard-back chair across the table from him. We were in a conference room at my workplace at the Department of Children and Family Services, where I had been working for the past year in my first post-college job after getting my Masters degree in Social Work. It was an incredibly stressful job. I was living in north Idaho and being paid minimally to work in an extremely high stress environment, trying hard to get children reunited with the birth parents they had been taken from for one reason or another. I was constantly stressed out and losing sleep, and could feel my hair going prematurely grey. In my capacity as a DCFS worker, I had met with policemen, judges, attorneys, guardians, parents, teachers, therapists, medical professionals, and probation and parole officers in this room, but this was the first time I’d met an FBI agent. I automatically assumed he was here regarding one of the teenage kids I represented for the state. A few of them had a penchant for getting into major trouble from time to time.

“Chad, it has come to my attention that you recently took a licensing exam for your professional licensure with the state of Idaho, is that correct?”

I furrowed my brow in confusion. “Yes. About a month ago. I barely passed the exam. I got a 72, the passing score being 70. I’d taken the exam once previously and didn’t pass, getting a 68. ”

The idea of the exam itself still put giant knots in my stomach. It cost hundreds of dollars and was a four hour test. I’d had a 3.9 GPA in college, yet this impossible exam with its subjective and misleading questions filled me with anxiety. Not passing it meant waiting months to take it again, paying full price each time, and it directly influenced my ability to be hired. It was like the Bar exam for attorneys, except much less stressful and for social workers.

“Yes, I had those facts already.” The agent consulted some notes, then looked up. “It appears you are being charged with potentially undermining the integrity of the exam itself. Pardon me, not charged. Accused.”

My heart started thudding. “Accused of undermining–I’m sorry, what?”

“It seems you might have cheated to pass the test.” His eyes were on mine, searching. Only later would I realize that he was watching closely for my reaction to his accusation, seeing if I looked guilty or not.

I was flabbergasted. “What are you talking about? I barely passed it!”

The agent explained that there were allegations by the testing center that I had compromised sensitive testing materials. The exam had been held by an independent testing center in Spokane, Washington, at the local community college. I had had to sign up weeks in advance. On the day of the test, I’d arrived early, checked in all of my things, and been shown into the testing room where it was just me and a computer, with four hours to answer the multiple choice questions. During the test, I was given two sheets of scratch paper and a pen, and those were the only tools I was allowed to use. I’d been allowed one ten minute break during the test. During the long, anxiety-ridden test, I had made random notes of words and numbers on the scratch paper, and during the break, I’d placed those random scribblings in my pocket while I’d gone to the restroom. I’d been out of the room approximately seven minutes.

“Upon reviewing the video footage of your test, we noticed that you removed the papers from the room. I was brought in to look at the results and determine if you did or did not cheat. I represent the testing agency in this region.”

My head was pounding with stress and confusion. “Wait, my random scribbles on a page–in the bathroom–how would I have cheated?”

He shrugged. “Maybe you showed the notes to a friend. Maybe you had a fax machine or a cell phone ready.”

“That’s ridiculous! Every exam has randomly assigned questions in a random order! How would I have possibly cheated! What good would those scribblings do anyone?”

“Mr. Anderson, it was against the rules to remove those papers from the room itself.”

“I just went to the bathroom!”

“Yet you removed those papers. Did you or did you not know it was against the rules?”

“I–sure, I guess so. But I wasn’t thinking about that then. I had to pee, and I was full of anxiety. How would I have helped anyone cheat?”

The agent’s voice lowered and he asked me several more questions. He told me he would need a written statement from me, and stated that I might wish to consult with an attorney first. I told him that one was absolutely unnecessary, and filled out a lengthy statement right then. Weeks later, the agent told me that my candor and unwavering statements confirmed to him that I wasn’t suspicious and helped him believe my story that nothing illegal had happened. I’d made a mistake in following rules, but that he believed it was accidental.

Two weeks after his visit, I lost my job. It was illegal for the state to keep me employed without a license. Tw months after that, the state board of social workers met to review my case and, determining I had done nothing wrong, finally issued my professional license. Ultimately, this series of events left me briefly unemployed, and then finally hired by a different agency as a therapist, an entirely different career track than the one I had been on, and one that I found paid better and was intensely less stressful.

That was 2005. It’s now 2017, and I’ve been operating as a fully licensed professional for over 12 years. As part of my professional responsibilities, I supervise a group of recently graduated social workers who are preparing to take their licensing exams. At that time in my life, that was the scariest thing that had ever happened to me. Now, this story gives me one hell of a cautionary tale to tell.

Helping the Helpers

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“Excuse me! Excuse me, sir!”

This morning, I walked across a parking lot toward my vehicle in a pair of jeans and a grey t-shirt that reads “That’s what.” –She, my backpack over my shoulder, car keys in my hand. An older woman, likely in her mid-70s, pulling an oxygen tank behind her walked toward me. She had a brunette perm, a flowered blouse, and baggy black slacks on. Her glasses slid down to the end of her nose in classic grandma fashion.

“Um, yes?”

She walked quickly across the parking lot. “What is it that you do? What are you any good at?”

“I’m sorry?” Concerned, I unlocked my car and set my backpack inside.

“I said, ‘what are you any good at?'”

“Oh, I heard you, I just didn’t really understand the question.”

She got closer to my car now, just a few feet away. “I need help!”

I looked at her with concern. “What kind of help?”

“There–there is a young girl next door,” she explained, out of breath. “She’s crying. I’ve never met her, but she’s crying, and I asked her if she is okay, and I think she said she wasn’t okay but I wasn’t sure and she’s still crying, and are you any good at that?”

I tilted my head and narrowed my eyes, suspicious. “Am I any good at what? I’m just out running an errand.”

“Son, I’m asking you what you are good at!” She stepped in closer. “She’s crying and I don’t know what to do!”

She suddenly looked angry. What in heaven’s name is going on, I wondered. “Well, if you are worried about her, maybe you should call the police.”

“She’s in a house I’ve never been in and I don’t have a phone! Please just come with me!”

“Ma’am, I’m very sorry, but I need to get going.”

She looked angry, then disappointed, then sad as I started my car, backed out, and began to pull away. A hundred scenarios flashed through my head. Was she trying to get me into the house so I could be mugged? Was she suffering from dementia and having an episode? Was there really a mystery girl next door crying in a house?

I drove past the woman and pulled out onto the small road next to the parking lot. One house down, I slowed the car. There was a girl sitting on the front porch in her early twenties, looking unkempt, in a white tank top and Capris. She had headphones in her ears and mussed hair. She looked up at me as I drove by slowly, her eyes streaked with tears, and we briefly made eye contact. She flipped me off as I drove by.

What just happened?

I pictured myself presenting to my college class later this week, as an ethical scenario. I teach social workers, all working on a masters in the field, and I enjoy presenting unorthodox scenarios and picking their brains. Was it ethically sound for me as a professional who upholds a license and a duty to help others to drive away from this old woman and crying adult? I could open the topic for discussion, but my students would already know my answer. In my office, it is my job to help those who are in front of me, but I was out on the street as a civilian. I need boundaries, and I’m not expected to put myself in potentially dangerous situations. Calling the authorities would be sufficient in the worst scenarios, and in this case I don’t have enough information to even do that.

When I first entered the field of social work, I was surprised by how often strangers and family members would solicit me for advice.

“I think my husband is cheating on me, what should I do?”

“My daughter’s friend said that her daddy touches her sometimes and I don’t know what that means, but he gives me the creeps. Should I call Child Protection? What do I do?”

“I’ve been having flashbacks to my brother’s suicide, what does that mean?”

Even worse are the date therapy sessions. Meeting a guy for the first time and having those awkward conversations about where you grew up, who is in your family, and what you do for a living.

“I’m a clinical social worker.”

“Oh, really? I have a counselor. I’ve had one for years, in fact. After my dad left when I was a kid and my mom married a guy who later went to jail, I attempted suicide and sometimes I still think about it.”

I have a tremendous amount of compassion and I like helping others, but not at the expense of myself, and not on a date. Extending too much of myself leads to a little thing called compassion fatigue, a fancy way of saying burnout. I care too much for too many and too little for myself, and suddenly instead of helping a few people a lot I only get to help a lot of people a little. And I go home exhausted.

I sometimes have friends who worry about being able to confide in me about their struggles. But that’s different. In a reciprocal friend relationship, I can rely on others just as they rely on me. If we hang out three times a month and you are having a bad day, sure, call me up and let’s chat. But if I haven’t seen you in five years and you call for advice on your estranged mother, well, I’ve got a little less to offer.

It must be worse for nurses and doctors.

“Is it normal for this to be this purple/stiff/dry/swollen? Could you take a look?”

So, to the old lady and the crying girl who randomly crossed my path this morning, I hope the help you need. You just won’t get it from me.

Murdering a Maker

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“Mr. Anders, if you don’t stop speaking like a social worker, and start speaking like a human being, I’m going to ask you to leave my courtroom.”

I was fresh out of college with my Masters degree the first time I was called to testify in court. I was a very young-looking, and very naive, 26 year old social worker, newly hired at Child Protective Services, and I had quickly found myself in over my head.

My job description had extended to far more than I was prepared for. I was representing children of all ages, from young babies born with drugs in their systems to sexually promiscuous teenage girls to fire-starting teenage boys. I had to monitor their care with foster parents, work on reunification plans for the parents, search for adoptive homes, and represent the kids with their probation officers, doctors, teachers, and court officials. I was suddenly writing affidavits recommending termination of parental rights, amongst many other things I had never even heard of before.

And just a few weeks into the job, I had found myself stammering into court from the witness stand about three children I had barely met, reading notes off of old forms about their parents who I had never met, and the judge had quickly gotten frustrated with me.

I appeared in court dozens of times after that, and it became almost routine. I grew accustomed to the small town court system and all of the inter-dynamics. I learned how the judge’s daughter was one of the prominent attorney in town and how she was liable to get prominent cases tossed her way. I learned how one of the lead prosecuting attorneys was sexually involved with one of the lead defense attorneys, and how they would form deals together at home before coming in to court sometimes, arranging plea deals for clients that would serve both attorneys’ best interests. I learned how if you made the scheduling secretary upset, you might find your case delayed by a few weeks inexplicably. And I remember being outraged at the time that these complicated human relationships were affecting the fair prosecutions, trials, and arrangements for citizens who deserved fairness. People came into a courthouse full of unfair office politics that were stacked against them unless they had a lot of money.

Then, years later, I watched the brilliant documentary series Making a Murderer on Netflix. Detailing the complicated trial of Steve Avery in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. After serving 18 years in prison for a rape, Steven was proven innocent of the rape due to DNA testing. While he was in the process of suing for his imprisonment, he was accused of murdering Theresa Halbach, a 25 year old photographer whose bones were found on his property. A confession was coerced from Avery’s nephew, 16 year old Brendan Dassey, who struggled with developmental delays, and both were sentenced to life in prison.

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During the course of the trial, as portrayed by the documentary, it shows how the police and prosecutors collaborated behind the scenes to set up the case the way they wanted, using press conferences, (allegedly) planted evidence, and intimidation to coerce, manipulate, and take advantage of the system.

Now I don’t think the point of the documentary is to prove Steve Avery innocent. In fact, a full jury convicted him based on evidence (blood, bones, bullets, DNA, access, motive, etc), and it is likely he is guilty. To me, the point of the documentary is to show how complicated the American criminal justice system is, and how stacked it is against those accused of crimes. Even if eye witnesses saw Avery kill Halbach with his own hands, he still deserves a fair trial.

Some of the public statements made by officials in this documentary made my skin crawl. Appointed public defenders making public statements that presume the guilt of a 16 year old client they haven’t taken the time to meet, police officers saying that they wouldn’t need to plant evidence because if they wanted revenge on Avery they could have simply killed him, bullying tactics against a teenage boy to get him to confess just exactly what it is they want him to confess to.

I’ve never been arrested, but I’ve known many over the years who have. They presume upon arrest that they can trust the police officers and that they will have a fair shot in court granted to them, when the opposite seems to be true.

It is not my intention with this post to villainize every judge, police officer, or prosecuting attorney. I believe that most every individual is there to do a great job and has the best intentions of the individual and the system at heart. But just like I had great intentions as a child protection worker coming in, I ended up overwhelmed and constantly stressed out; I believe that the politics of these systems easily harm even those with the best intentions, making it a very difficult system to operate in.

I don’t know if Steve Avery is guilty of the murder of Teresa Halbach, but I firmly suspect that Brendan Dassey is innocent. There are far more innocent men and women in prisons than we could ever suspect, and there are enough coerced confessions and DNA cases proving innocence over the years to show that false convictions are not only possible, they are common.

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How many innocent people out there are behind bars, and what needs to revamped in this system to ensure ethical standards, fairness, and morality?