This story is part of a continuing series of Hometown Heroes. CACSEI is highlighting the work of regional child protection workers, advocates, law enforcement, and allies in our work against child abuse.
In a state agency that is critical and feared and unknown, struggling with turnover, and at once on the front lines of a seemingly impossible job, Laurel Wahl takes in all of it. Wahl has been a Family Case Manager with the Department of Child Services for 20 years. That’s 19 years longer than most FCM’s stay in the job.
In the southern Ohio River city of Madison, Wahl handles assessments of child abuse reports and other maltreatment. When someone makes a claim to the Child Abuse Hotline, she’s one of the FCMs who investigates. When the police suspect a child may be in danger, Wahl is there.
Her career started in substance abuse counseling at a nearby prison. After stints as a transitional coordinator helping offenders prepare for life after release, she started with DCS in 1999.
“My niece was involved in the [child protective] system when I was young,” she recalls. “I just wanted to be involved in it because of what she went through.”
Two decades in the same region, across multiple governors and state administrations, and countless stories from children has given Wahl an education on families of all kinds.
She credits current DCS Executive Director Terry Stigdon with improving the work culture, protecting caseworkers, and
For most families DCS is assessing, “The first thing they ask is if I’m there to take their kids away. I’m really not,” says Wahl. “There are a lot of things we can do to help people. Maybe the report was unfounded and we can help clear that up quickly. We’re not here to hurt or judge anyone.”
Leaning on years of relationships, Wahl and other FCMs rely on community partners to help when work leaves the scope of DCS’ charge or assessment time of 45 days. “Sometimes a person needs parenting advice, or help connecting with counseling. Sometimes they need help getting funding for counseling or looking for a job, housing, other financial resources. Maybe they need help with the Medicaid system or disability.” In every instance, Wahl knows someone who can assist.
Often DCS can intervene for the best interests of a child. Sometimes, however, the call doesn’t come soon enough or at all. A death investigation of an infant has stuck with Wahl the longest. As part of her work to not just assess situations, the case is a reminder of the ways they can help save lives in other ways. “We have to reinforce the keys to safe sleep. That child’s death was an accident, but it was preventable. That was probably one of the hardest things to process, seeing it through,” she says.
Wahl has also been in the field long enough to spend ten years without CACSEI as a partner, and ten years with. “The CAC is really awesome to have. I’m trained in forensic interviews and did a bunch myself before it opened. It’s been a lot better since CACSEI opened. Everybody that needs to be there is. We’re all collaborating faster, and I think it’s a lot more support for the victim and family,” she says.
In some cases, FCMs like Wahl have no idea what happens after they’ve finished their assessment. But even when a case is unsubstantiated, DCS still offers or facilitates help and support. “We often provide team meetings to families even if we do not substantiate the assessment to make sure the family has all needed support,” says Wahl.
“There are a lot of community resources available that families aren’t always aware of. We can connect them to these services without ongoing involvement from our office,” says Wahl.
“Linking everyone together prevents a need for DCS. It would be nice to the results from that work.”Laurel Wahl
“I don’t think we know as much as it would be nice to know,” says Wahl. “We’re not really allowed to keep up with the families when we have closed the assessment. I’ve had a few that have reached out to say ‘Thanks, I’ve got all these things in place now.’ That’s really nice to get those messages. And of course, we live in a small town. Sometimes seeing them around town, you come to know things are going okay.”