Conducting a home visit is the most important duty a caseworker performs. Capturing as much information as possible is critical when it comes to making decisions about the safety and well-being of children.

Two different professionals can visit the same home on the same day an hour apart and come away with completely different ideas of whether the home is safe for the kids living in it.

Case in point:

As a GAL, I popped in to do an unannounced home visit on a Monday morning after bio mom’s unsupervised weekend visit with her three kids under age 5. Children’s services had custody of the boys who were placed with their grandparents.

Though it had a foul odor, the apartment appeared clean and tidy as we sat in the living room and caught up on all things related to how the weekend went and what she was planning to do when her boyfriend got out of jail on aggravated theft and domestic violence charges (she insisted she was done with him).

From the living room, the placed looked clean enough, but my nose just couldn’t get past the smell. As much as I didn’t want to know what it was, I had to find out. I asked Mom to walk me through the apartment and the bedrooms. She resisted.

In cases such as this, I’m a huge fan of playing good cop/bad cop—which usually goes something like this:

“My supervisor/boss/the court requires me to see where the kids sleep. I know, it’s totally ridiculous but I have to. It must be hard to have people in your house and business all the time. I’m really sorry.” She reluctantly agreed.

The stench hit hard when I opened the door to the boys’ bedroom. Dried feces covered the walls, the slats of the baby’s crib, even the handles of the laundry basket full of dirty clothes.

“Talk to me about this,” I said to Mom. She muttered something about the baby taking his diaper off. We talked further about the filth, the health hazards this created, and how it just wasn’t ok or safe for the boys to live like that.

We continued through the apartment and walked through the kitchen last. Piles of dirty dishes were on the counter.  On the wall, a large dry erase board was full of hand drawn hearts and a countdown to the day the boyfriend would be released from prison. I think there might have been some wedding bells too, along with her name and his.

At that moment, the boys’ grandma arrived to get them. Thank goodness.

A couple of hours later the caseworker returned my phone call regarding my home visit. She had just come from the apartment and found everything to be in order. She had noticed the smell but said the place was clean. She had not seen the bedroom. The caseworker said Mom had no plans to reunite with her boyfriend. She had not seen the kitchen or dry-erase board.

Ultimately, the grandparents received custody of the boys and the case was closed.

A few things to think about:

  • Regardless of why you are in someone’s home, you are a visitor. Be respectful of their space even if it makes you cringe or worry about bed bugs.
  • Good cop/bad cop always comes in handy when working cases. As a supervisor, I was more than willing to be bad cop if it helped preserve relationships between the person I supervised and others.
  • Always see where the child sleeps. Bedrooms offer important glimpses into the daily lives of children.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Just do it nicely. “I noticed there are holes in the wall. What can you tell me about how they got there?” Same with doors off hinges. This can be a sign of family violence.

It took years of frontline work before I was comfortable asking people uncomfortable questions. Just remember that respect, diligence, and persistence go a long way in securing a good outcome for kids. A little game of good cop/bad cop doesn’t hurt either.

Do you have tips from the field? Share your hard-won wisdom with the rest of us. We are all in this together!