The 10-year-old little boy sitting with Investigator Erika McCormack had a story to tell. It began with allegations of being beaten with a belt, sleeping on a mattress on the floor and expressing fear of his caregivers. The ending included tears on a front porch, an engaged family, a basketball game, and a big smile.
The theme throughout this story - engagement.
"I really love the job," stated Erika as she conducted this interview while juggling her schedule around entering case narratives, answering phone calls, and preparing for a Considered Removal Meeting. "This is what I do."
Erika is used to multitasking. While working in sales, she decided to go back to school, with two children aged 3 and 5 years, and enrolled in Central Connecticut State University to obtain a Bachelor's in Social Work Degree. She was eager to learn and sought classes taught by one Professor who was "instrumental" in her development and inspired her the most - Professor Vannessa Dorantes, now Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes.
After earning her degree, Erika began working at the former Mount Saint John's residential facility. She obtained a Master's in Social Work Degree from the University of Connecticut, became licensed, and continued conducting clinical work.
Erika eventually joined the Department of Children and Families and after 10 months as an Ongoing Worker, she was "volun-told" to transfer to Intake given staff shortages. It took her six to eight months to feel comfortable in this role, as she was accustomed to having more time to engage and build relationships with families. "Be kind and understanding with the family," she quickly learned and recognized that her role in Intake was a "steppingstone to the relationship with the Ongoing worker."
"I walk into someone's house, and the last thing I do is judge them," she stated. Erika approaches those she serves with compassion and wants to establish connection and communication. "What are someone's experiences that brought them to this point in their life?"
There was no better question to keep in mind when it came to the case of a young boy named Markel* and the unique approaches she took to engage his family.
Markel disclosed to school personnel that he suffered injuries on his back after being beaten by his caregiver. He expressed fear of returning home and spoke of sleeping in undesirable conditions. Erika was assigned the case and quickly collaborated with the local Police Department to conduct a joint investigation.
She engaged with Markel at his school and developed a rapport. He told her he was living with his relatives for a "better life" in the United States while his parents remained in another country.
Markel was spoken to 1:1 and was examined for injuries - none were found. When questioned about sleeping on the floor on a mattress, Markel admitted he did not want to sleep alone in his room and wanted to be close to his relatives, so he brought the mattress into their room each night.
"Put the pieces together," is one way Erika describes her work and engagement with families. It was clear more was happening with this young boy.
It was then time to speak with Markel's caregivers.
Erika visited the family's home and given their culture, recognized they may fear they are in "trouble," as they were being visited by a government agency. She drew on her previous experiences with a family of similar background and recalled spending two to three hours with the father in that home as she allowed him to educate her on his beliefs, parenting style and priorities for his family. Practicing cultural humility, she remembered asking questions and seeking knowledge.
"How would I feel?" she asked herself while imagining what the experiences of being investigated by the Department would be like.
Her interviews continued with the caregivers and again with Markel. Erika and Markel sat on his front porch, they continued to talk, and then came the tears - Markel started crying.
"I lied," he said. None of the allegations were true.
Markel was in pain and his allegations were in response to the trauma of being separated from his parents. Neither his mother nor his sister could enter the United States as originally planned. Although he could FaceTime with his mother daily, he was desperate to be with her. Markel also feared for his father's safety given the prominent position he held in the community back home where heightened unrest was present.
In the helping profession, it is important to ask not "What's wrong with you?" but "What's happened to you?"
Markel was grieving and his allegations were viewed as a response to childhood trauma.
Erika continued to engage with the family and was able to move past their understandable caution to her initial questions and interventions. She used an interpreter to ensure the family was able to communicate fully in their primary language. The family disclosed they began caring for Markel with the understanding his parents could soon come for him. Those plans were on hold. Erika helped the family understand the reasons underneath Markel's statements, the losses he was experiencing and the supports he so desperately needed.
Erika wondered if Markel found a connection to her given she was a female.
After full investigation, it was determined no need for child protection existed. However, Erika's assessment and compassion brought her to want more for this little boy and his family. She recognized his need to become involved in activities which would increase his self-esteem and allow him to work through his emotions.
Erika asked Markel about his interests and engaged with him well beyond the allegations.
"I really wanted to do basketball," Markel said.
"Yeah, that would great," was Markel's response when the idea was presented to him about joining a team. The family agreed and Erika facilitated the sign up
The first game came, and Erika attended. When Markel saw her, he ran over to her with a big smile on his face. "You came," he said.
Markel was not the only one who noticed her. The school Principal wrote a kind note to the Department on behalf of Erika's thoughtful work.
The case is now closed, and the family is receiving proper supports within the community.
When Erika's work brings her back to Markel's school to speak with other children, she will look for him and that smile.
It is also most likely true that Markel looks for her.
*The name of the individual in this story was changed to ensure confidentiality