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Giving the children a chance

For Melanie Callender, a caseworker who monitors children in abusive or unstable homes, a day's work can make all the difference in the life of a child.

By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 13, 2002


For many of Florida's children, fairness is a concept as remote as cold fusion: It just doesn't factor into their lives.

Their parents care more about drugs than about them, or the children are punching bags, suffering the frustration of their parents' failed lives. They are born to perverts who see them as nothing more than defenseless sex toys, or they have to kick an addiction before they leave the maternity ward.
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
As part of her field work, caseworker Melanie Callender visits a client in St. Petersburg recently. Her job also involves office work and considerable time in court, but she seems most at home with the families she's trying to help.
Many of them will never learn what fairness is, nor even simpler concepts, like being a teenager, growing up, enjoying life. About 85 of them will die this year. That's if the trend set in the previous few years holds. Another 85,000 may well wish they were dead. That's how many cases of abuse were confirmed in 2000.

Lucky ones will get their names and birth dates typed on the rib of a 3-inch-thick binder like the ones filling a bookcase in Melanie Callender's office. That will mean that the world outside their home knows they exist, knows that something isn't right there. That means that, for the first time for many, they will have an adult watching them who has not yet abused them.

Getting their name on that binder means they have a chance.

* * *

When Melanie Callender stands up behind the awesome responsibility spread out on her desk, you wait for the rest of her to appear. Or for her to fetch her mother.

Neither happens. Neither, it turns out, will be needed today.

The diminutive 24-year-old doesn't fill the mental image of the person charged with protecting the welfare of dozens of Florida's children. But image isn't everything. At 5 feet 3 (if you round upward) and roughly 100 pounds, Callender feels she's a perfect fit for the role.

By the end of a day on the job with her, it is hard to disagree.

Callender is a case manager with Family Continuity Programs Inc., the nonprofit agency that assumed child protection duties in Pinellas and Pasco counties from the Department of Children and Families in mid-2000. The transition followed a 1998 mandate by the state Legislature to turn over child safety programs to private entities.

She is responsible for monitoring the safety and well-being of 47 children in 26 different cases, a daunting task for a job that pays $29,100 after one year.

Her job has garnered much media and public scrutiny in recent months after the state admitted it lost track of Rilya Wilson, a 5-year-old Miami girl who was being monitored by Department of Children and Families caseworkers. Rilya is still missing.

A degree in psychology from Eckerd College and eight weeks of training with DCF helped train her for the job, but nothing could have prepared her for it.

"Every day is different. You never know what to expect," she explains recently as she prepares to go to court. There, a parent in one of her cases will try to convince a hearing master that she should retain custody of her children. Callender makes several such appearances each week.

The children in the case were removed from the family because the husband, drug-addicted and unemployed, was physically abusive to the mother, Callender explains. He would take the woman's money, leaving the children without food and eventually causing them to live in a car.

The children eventually are returned to the mother with the proviso that the father would not live with them and that he could only visit with supervision.

"She's doing really well," Callender says.

With about two years of experience, Callender is a "seasoned case manager," says Janice Burton, her team leader. When Family Continuity took over from DCF, many of the child-protection caseworkers chose not to remain. Maybe the new, more comprehensive rules governing their jobs were too much. Maybe the thought of leaving the known security of state employment for the unknown private agency was too daunting. Burton, who has 15 years in child protection and welfare work, says she doesn't know why.

Less than a week into the month of June, and Callender's schedule is already full. She is required to see each of the 47 children in her files at least once a month. She usually sees them more often. A foster mother with a teenager has called to say she's having trouble with him and wants Callender to come talk with him.

"You must have stable housing," she says into the phone to a woman trying to regain custody of her children. "I need to come out and see the house, though," she tells the woman.

She already has gotten her daily call from a 13-year-old who has been a client of protective services since he was 3. He needs to talk with her, he says.

He used to call her more often, but she got him to cut back to once a day, if he needed to talk with her. But the tone in Callender's voice when she speaks of him says she would gladly accept 10 calls a day from him if she could.
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Before leaving a client's home, Melanie Callender fills out a report to record her observations. Though the people she visits often seem to welcome her warmly, she has the power to recommend that the court remove children from their home.
"He's a special child," she says, in that tone reserved for him.

She will see him after her court appearance.

"Hi, I need to schedule two children for psychologicals," she says into the phone between gathering materials for court. "It's for adoptions."

Beside the bookcase of about 20 case binders stands a metal file cabinet. It, too, is full of case files. The newer cases are in the bookcase, and the cabinet is full of DCF transfers, she explains.

As she gathers the files for court and stands to leave, a certificate above her head on the wall behind her begs to be explained.

"First Annual Warrior Woman Award of Team 5," it reads. "You handled it like a champ."

"I was new and I had just a lot of really tough cases and I handled them all," she says, her voice and stature again inadvertently highlighting the juxtaposition of her minimal presence with the enormity of her job.

* * *

The trip to the courthouse in Largo from her office in the 300 block of 31st Street N in St. Petersburg is a necessary part of the work Callender does, but the trip itself is treated as an interference with her busy day. She doesn't drive fast, she drives quickly.

Several times a week, case managers, representatives from the state attorney's office, parents and sometimes their lawyers stand before a hearing master to measure the progress toward reunification of families who have had their children removed. Some of the children are in foster care, others have been returned to their parents under protective services' supervision.

Callender and the other case managers who monitor the families' progress give their assessments of their readiness to be reunited and make recommendations to the hearing master, who presides over the proceedings like a judge.

"Success to me is to be able to recommend that kids be returned to their parents, because that means the parents have worked hard (to solve the problems that necessitated state intervention) and made a lot of progress," Callender says.

The case managers' recommendations carry a lot of weight.

Courtroom 17 fills up at 2 p.m., when a shotgun blast of cases are slated to be heard by General Master Sarah Rahdert. The hearings, serving Pinellas and Pasco counties, are held three days a week and are generally full. The two counties have five service centers between them. Callender's St. Petersburg center serves south Pinellas County.

Callender is one of five case managers on Team 5. Each center has five or six teams, each made up of five to seven case managers and several family specialists to support them. Janice Burton, Callender's team leader, said each team sees about 175 to 185 children.

The courtroom is a hodgepodge of dysfunction that doesn't hide far beneath the surface. Several faces glow with the ruddy blush of alcoholism. One mother is in jail-house orange. One man's T-shirt bears the warning of a popular song: "Y'all goin' make me act a fool up in heah."

Battered women try unsuccessfully to hide their fear and deference with forced smiles as they look to their silent mates for approval of their words and actions. The woman in Callender's case is one of those, all smiles, and she sits next to Callender as other cases are heard. Her husband is more morose, red-eyed and uncomfortable. He shows no interest in the proceedings.

With Rahdert's pronouncement on each case, a case manager takes the parent out into the hallway and restates what is expected of them -- what the state requires of them -- before they can regain custody of their children.

Some of the parents are eager to know what steps they need to take for their family; others seem only interested in the steps that will take them out of the courtroom.

"She hasn't taken anger management classes," the rap on the mother in jail-house orange begins. "Hasn't had a psychological evaluation, hasn't taken parenting classes, hasn't maintained stable residence. She's in jail. Custody remains with the father," Rahdert says.

As she says those words, the father walks in, the child in his arms, to a welcome fit for a conquering hero. He is soundly congratulated on doing a good job. The mother chuckles bashfully and declines to say anything when offered the opportunity, and is led back to jail. The father takes the child back home.

Then a rare success story: "We won't be able to see you anymore. You've done a wonderful job, mom," Rahdert congratulates a woman who, after satisfying the long list of requirements and showing progress at several hearings, will be granted unsupervised custody of her children.

When the case that brought Callender to court is heard, Rahdert relies on her to answer questions about the mother's residence, work and domestic violence issues. Callender's answers are even, almost clerical, concealing the passions the case stirs in her.

Rahdert rules that the mother should keep custody with visitation by the father only with close supervision, as Callender had recommended.

Outside, Callender suspects that the abusive, non-working husband is back in the home in violation of conditions set for the mother to retain custody. "That is why I emphasized he should see them only with supervision," Callender says.

She will have to keep a close eye on them.

Although Rahdert's ruling is the one Callender sought, she does not show happiness. But that is normal. Success in her job does not yield results with a finality you can celebrate. In her job, success means a child's life is stabilized -- for now.

* * *

"Melanie! I need to talk to you about something." The words are understandable but not clearly spoken, the result of cerebral palsy and excitement.

Finished with court, Callender finally gets to see "the special child."

He is preparing to go into a foster home, and he wants to show Callender the list of things he will be doing and tell her about a shopping trip he took to Wal-Mart. And he wants assurances that she'll still come see him when he goes to his new foster home.

He gets that assurance.

The child and a brother were removed from an abusive home when he was 3 years old; they spent the next nine years together in the same foster home. The foster parents adopted his brother, but not the special child.

Callender notices an abrasion on his elbow. He says he doesn't know how it happened. She decides he probably hurt it in a fall. He falls a lot, she says.

In addition to the palsy, he suffered some brain injury when he was choked by one of his biological parents.

"I care for this child. He doesn't have a real connection to anyone. The only home he's known, they don't want him back. He's a special kid."

The boy goes on non-stop, reading from the list of therapeutic exercises he will do to prepare him for the new foster care. A counselor at Pinellas Emergency Mental Health Services is at the table with them, but Callender's focus is on the child and what he has to say.

"He's a bright child," she says later. "He's special." The words skim the surface of emotions Callender is not supposed to feel in a job she's not supposed to take home with her.

Co-workers call him her son.

Callender's workday, which she must document in 25-minute increments, is divided among the office, the court and in the field. The field, such as the time she spent with her special kid, seems to be where she is most at home.

"Sometimes I get going and going 'til my stomach tells me I need to eat," she says. It is about 3:30, and she realizes she didn't eat after court as she had planned. Now she is already on her way, mentally and physically, to her next client visit.

The parents' rights are being terminated and custody given to a great uncle and aunt who are already providing foster care. The father disappeared, and Callender had to locate him -- in West Palm Beach -- to get him to sign termination papers. "He doesn't care about the kids," she says.

"A lot of time, people work their eight hours and put aside their families and their personal lives to get things done at work they couldn't do during the week. It's not an easy job. You have to be dedicated to do this job."

"Hi, I got my report card. I'm in fourth grade," says the little boy with the great uncle and aunt.

The aunt tells her the children have made great progress since they've been with her. "They have friends now. They see relatives."

She says she is growing impatient with the series of hearings that must precede terminating parental rights and placing custody in their hands. "We sit and sit and sit through everybody's hearing, then they tell you it's going to be continued. I sit there and worry that nobody's going to be home to open the door because it's at the time when school is letting out."

Callender listens, empathizes and consoles. She is greeted at each home with sincere welcomes, as if she is a friend dropping by for a visit, not an agent of the government who could be instrumental in taking children out of a home.

"Melanie has been great," gushes Naomi Harper, a foster mother. "She is as good as they get."

Burton, the team leader, agrees with Harper, but adds that the same applies to the rest of her team.

"I have the best team," she says, almost with an apology to the rest of the agency. "They are of very high caliber. Each one of them has skills that, when I was a case worker I didn't have. They can work with a diversity of people, they can work through a number of adversities. They all have some impressive skills."

Burton says all of her case managers are women, and most in Family Continuity Programs are. Callender joked that's because women are better at handling the stress that comes with the job. Burton attributes it to the "shoe gene" women have, the one that tells them to go shopping for shoes when stress becomes too burdensome.

"A lot of teachers and even guidance counselors have no idea what these children are experiencing, the stresses they have to contend with. All they see sometimes is the acting out," Callender says.

* * *

There are still several stops on Callender's list as she heads into the Childs Park neighborhood of St. Petersburg. It is almost 5 p.m., and it is still too early to catch some of her working clients. She will have to come back.

She returns to her office.

This day is finished. The job isn't.

The next day will be different, but it will be the same.

There will be new cases. And old ones.

There will be few happy endings, just perhaps stable ones.

But a few more of Florida's endangered children will know what a chance looks like. It is 5 feet 3 and weighs about 100 pounds.

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