Home News Local news Source Feature: Behind the Scenes of V.I. Social Work

Source Feature: Behind the Scenes of V.I. Social Work


In honor of national Social Work, Child Abuse Prevention and Foster Care months, the Source is providing readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the working lives of eight of the territory’s most seasoned social workers.

Meeting with the Source for a candid interview in March, these women shared not only some of their most intimate experiences on the job, but their hopes for the future of the territory’s children.

Warning to readers: The following article contains graphic and sometimes disturbing scenes.

Upon entering the small house, V.I. social workers Candace Robinson and Vida Herbert realized that it was overrun with cockroaches. In the corners, scuttling across the floor in every direction—it was like they were coming out to say hello. Watching them move for just a minute, anyone else would have bolted for the door, but the two women knew—as they surveyed the scene and the young mother with her baby in the middle of it—that they had to do something.

After looking through the bare cupboards, they took stock of the cash in their wallets and returned to the car, reappearing later with bags of insecticide from a nearby store. As social workers on a house call to their client, the women felt they were duty bound to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

"We went through the house spraying, and helping the mom throw stuff out, and I remember when she went to take the bag out of the wastepaper basket, and I don’t think she saw, but a fountain of roaches came out—I’m talking literally hundreds," Robinson said thoughtfully, as she recounted her experience years later to her colleagues while sitting around a table in their offices at Human Services.

"But this is how this family was living—and people might not think it’s a big deal, but roaches carry diseases, and there were babies there," Robinson added. "They could have gotten into their ears and caused infections."

For readers unfamiliar with the kind of living conditions Robinson described, the scene in the small house seemed barely imaginable.

However, for the seasoned group of V.I. social workers gathered around the table, it was just part of the “everyday”—an everyday where their resources, pocket change, even the little time they have carved out for their own children—go toward an ever-growing list of mothers, teenaged to the early 30s, desperately in need of the support, money and life lessons in cooking, cleaning and raising children.

The women are aware that people think they’re jobs are all about breaking up families. But looking to set the record straight, they’ve invited readers into the most intimate parts of their professional lives—the parts where the majority of time is not spent removing children from their homes, but rather focused on keeping those children with their families as long as possible. Removal, they’ve said, is the absolute last resort, and often occurs under the direst consequences.

The Gateway In
Leneice Smith, acting district director of the Office of Intake and Emergency Services, often makes her way out to the various public schools after she receives phone calls from teachers or administrators reporting tardy students. Once or twice might go unnoticed, but sometimes the students are chronically late, which could, according to Smith, raise concerns about parental neglect.

By law, V.I. school officials and staff, law enforcement officers, doctors and hospital personnel are required to report suspected cases of abuse and neglect to Human Services, which someone in Smith’s division — described as the "gateway" in to the department — is assigned to investigate. In the last month, the office has seen 20 referrals from these "mandated reporters," which Smith said is generally a high number.

"So far, we in Intake have never had to take a parent before the court for neglect, but recently the schools have been having a lot of complaints about children not coming to school on time," she explained. "Sometimes, it’s a case of the parents not being responsible, but when the schools try to contact them to find out why and can’t get an answer, they come to Human Services, which is a last resort."

The reality is that the children who are the subject of these reports are between the ages of six to 14, and their family unit is often headed by a young single mother, sometimes with several other kids and multiple jobs, according to the social workers.

"Some of these young parents may not have learned how to manage the household, or they themselves have come out of that same kind of environment, so it’s normal for them, explained Janet Turnbull-Krigger, Human Services’ administrator of Children and Family Services.

“And when the schools see these children coming to school—they’re unkempt, haven’t had breakfast, are late, they don’t have basic supplies they need for school—that’s when the referral is made to intake, and eventually Child Protective Services is sent out to work with those families," she said.

According to Smith, keeping the parents from being charged with neglect—a charge that can stem from a student frequently being tardy or absent—also means repeat visits to the child’s home, along with several educational outreach sessions, which she personally provides.

If that’s not enough, however, the case is referred to the Child Protective Services, where social workers such as Eno Iniama look at what kind of services the parents need, whether it’s counseling or simply lessons in basic life skills, which appears to be a rite of passage within the department.

Listening for just an hour to the social workers gathered around the table, it was clear there was not one among them who hadn’t rolled up her sleeves to help cook a meal, or, like Robinson, clean a house.

"Sometimes they need appliances, beds, things like that to help them out; or sometimes, the cleanliness of the home is the issue, so we try to help them — even if it means helping to do things like reducing the number of rats and roaches we see," Iniama said.

The unit can sometimes work with a family for up to a year or more, with the social workers operating as surrogate mothers by helping the parents, piece by piece, put together their lives.

One-Pot Meals
Always on the go, Ms. Vida Herbert is an institution among the social workers, who brought up her name time and again when talking about some of the things they try to teach their young families. Along with cleaning and shopping, cooking was on the top of the how-to list, and Herbert, they said, is the guru of one-pot meals.

"Ms. Herbert is big on taking one whole chicken and stretching it into different meals, so you can do soup, you can do stewed chicken, you can do chicken salad or chicken and rice — it’s those one-pot meals that work better for families," Turnbull-Krigger explained.

A majority of the division’s clients are on food stamps, so teaching them how to budget and stretch that food out as long as possible are additional points on the lesson plan, which, interestingly enough also includes good nutrition and cutting back on things like lobster and steak. Having a support system in place to help a young mother, father or couple cope with the physical and emotional stress of having a new baby is critical, and the social workers also spend their time teaching their clients how to take develop these ties with their friends and family.

And because they never know what they’re going to find, each social worker carries around a kit filled with items such as gloves and hand sanitizer.

"Once we get to the homes, and it’s an emergency, you know, we might see that the house might be filthy, or maybe there’s a baby crying and their diaper needs to be changed. We can’t just say, ‘Let’s wait until someone comes,’ we have to jump in and do it, be mom, do whatever needs to be done," said Lisandra Latorre, the department’s director of Adult Protective Services.

Though she doesn’t deal directly with infants, Latorre’s encounters with the elderly and disabled still fit the bill.

"I remember going into a home — even though every day we go into homes where there’s feces, people are lying in their feces and they have bedsores all types of physical ailments — there was a home we went into once where we got a call that a gentlemen was in his home and hadn’t been seen, even coming to the window or coming outside for a couple of weeks," she recalled.

What struck Latorre upon entering the home is that the elderly man was "completely nude" and lying on the floor, with trails of excrement running from the mattress to the bathroom and dishes piling up in the kitchen.

There were roaches and he was delirious," she said. Severely shaken upon arriving at the scene, Latorre and her team called an ambulance, and while waiting for it to come, tried to talk to the man on the floor and clear up a space around him. Reaching into their kits, the team pulled out bottles of water and fed the man, who was suffering from low blood sugar and was on the verge of a diabetic coma.

"Every day we go in, there are situations like this, especially with the elderly because they live alone," Latorre said. "But sometimes we just have to jump in and do what we can do — and in this case, we saved his life."

The Last Resort
Unfortunately, saving lives can also mean taking children out of dangerous situations or, in the case of Latorre, placing adults — oftentimes those who aren’t able to take care of themselves — under the care of Human Services.

The stories told by the women in the Foster Care/Adoption Unit are more graphic than the rest, with reports of badly beaten, bruised, or even dead children. Sitting across the table, one social worker spoke softly about a young mother with three kids, and expecting her fourth, whose domestic violence issues landed her youngest child, a 15-month-old, in the hospital.

"The doctors in the hospital did several tests and x-rays, and discovered that the child had multiple fractures to his body," she related. "Six broken ribs, three on each side, a damaged spleen, liver and broken hip and arm, so we had to take all the children, not just that one child, into our care."

Immigration issues came to the surface as it was discovered that the children’s relatives were split between Tortola—where one father was serving time in jail—and Virgin Gorda. Though Human Services removes children to get them out of harm’s way, the ultimate goal is still reunification, and part of the process includes searching for relatives that can help care for them. In this case, four V.I. workers were dispatched to scour the two islands, and had to absorb the cost of tickets, ground transport, food and other expenses, which amounted to hundreds of dollars.

In another case, one of the social workers spent an entire week working with a young girl, who was suspended from school one day and the next being advised of her rights after she filled a bottle with Clorox that another child in the house ingested.

"That whole process went from the police station to finding the girl another home, and I didn’t get off work till after 8 that night," said the social worker, whose name is being withheld to protect the confidentiality of her client. "I got up the next morning, and after advice of rights, the child had to be transported immediately to St. Croix, where I got stuck and had to find somewhere overnight to stay."

Coming back the next day, the social worker was faced with mountains of paperwork, since every action — from removal to making it back to the office — has to be documented.

"My daughter had a dentist appointment that same day," the social worker, added, her statement echoed by Latorre, who explained that the job also eats up time meant for their own loved ones, who are often cared for by relatives who function — much like the social workers do — as surrogates.

Sometimes their cases continue on for a year or more, as the parents are continually monitored and referred for anything from drug treatment services to employment counseling. What’s frustrating, however, is sometimes those services aren’t available in the territory, and there’s not enough funding to bring them in from off-island, so the department’s case load becomes a revolving door of parents and their children.

"If reunification with their parents isn’t feasible, we go to Plan B, and that’s discharging them to relatives," Turnbull-Krigger explained. "But if no relatives come forward, that’s when we look toward placing the child up for adoption or guardianship. For some, especially older children, we simply have to look at helping them transition into adulthood and providing them with the daily living services they need to make it on their own."

Wish Lists
"Frustration" was one of several words that kept going back and forth across the table—not only because of the lack of specific services for parents, but because of an overall lack of community resources, such as foster home and assisted living facilities for the children and senior citizens.

"We don’t receive as much federal funding as the other units," Latorre said. "And while we all have somewhat of a moral responsibility to take care of our relatives, we can’t force anyone, so then some of these cases become Human Services’ responsibility. A lot of the cases we have, other than referrals, has a lot to do with maintenance, because we don’t have enough beds or homes for the aged, so keeping them in their homes means we’re shopping for them, bringing them food, making sure their hygiene is okay."

Oftentimes, the department also has to provide foster homes for adults 18 and older with cognitive or other disabilities. Because these individuals are unable to live alone, Human Services starts out by trying to find them a volunteer foster parent, or residential facility, but frequently has to take over guardianship.

"We don’t have a lot of volunteers," Latorre said, adding that local residents are reluctant to take in kids or adults who might appear to have a behavioral problem, but in reality are masking their disabilities with anger.

More mental health and drug treatment facilities, along with service providers who can help French- and Spanish-speaking populations are also high on the social workers’ wish lists.

To help temper some of the frustrations, however, the department’s Child Welfare Program has, since 2007, been assessing its service array and policies, which Turnbull-Krigger said culminated in March with work on a practice model that takes a look at what the department believes in, its values and what kind of services need to be boosted.

"Our social workers listed every possible service they felt could be used in this jurisdiction," said Turnbull-Krigger, who added that the very women sitting around the table are part of the strong driving force behind the push for change.

"By the time we’re through, the V.I. child welfare system should be better," she said. "And who is going to drive this process is the social workers, along with the commitments from our managers and the community.

“We cannot continue to feel as though anything goes with children in this territory," she added. "We must make the changes necessary to improving and enhancing their lives."

In the meantime, the department is looking to expand its pool of foster parents. Anyone interested in becoming a foster parent or participating in the foster program in any way can contact Lydia Francis on St. Thomas at 774-0930 ext 4234, Diane Brown on St. Croix at 773-5303 and Delores Powell on St. John at 776-6200.


  1. What a rewarding experience for the dedicated social workers in this news article. It’s a challenging and engaging profession that brings out the best in you. Keep up the good work as you all deserve diamond-studded halos for a job well done….


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