SPECIAL SERIES THIS WEEK: All this week, KVAL News will bring you special reports on the problem of child abuse and neglect on the 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. nightly news and on KVAL.com. Coming up Thursday: Laura Rillos from KVAL news reports on what went wrong in the Jeanette Maples case - and how child welfare workers will change what they do because of the girl's death.
EUGENE, Ore. -- Four times before Jeanette Maples died, the State of Oregon received tips that the family might be abusing the teen.
Her mom and step-father now face murder charges in her death, and the state agency charged with protecting children admitted failing to follow its own policies when the abuse was reported.
That dramatic admission - and growing concern that child abuse is the number one criminal issue facing Lane County - prompted KVAL News to learn more about how the Department of Human Services investigates reports of child abuse and neglect.
The DHS office in Eugene was empty when KVAL News visited. All the caseworkers who investigate child abuse were in the filed.
"We're required, when we go into a home, to look at every room in the house," said Chris Sterling, who has worked for the agency for five years.
It's challenging work, she said.
Caseworkers interview children, family members, teachers - anyone with information who can help them put the pieces together.
"We get community response that we are too intrusive," Sterling said. "We get community responsive that we are not intrusive enough. So we try to find that balance."
DHS changed the way caseworkers investigate abuse claims in 2007. Instead of determining if a specific incident report is true or not, they are supposed to look at the bigger picture and ask: Is this child safe?
That means more interviews, more research and more work.
"We're here long hours meeting those timelines and getting out there in a timely manner and talking with children and putting our eyes on the child," Sterling said.
In Lane County, there are between 18 and 21 caseworkers visiting families and determining if children are being abused or neglected.
Is that enough?
"We're doing it," Sterling said. "We're doing it within our time frame."
John Radich is the director of DHS in Lane County. KVAL News asked him about public perception that some children slip through the cracks.
"I think overall our staff are very dedicated," he said. "You don't come in to do child welfare work without being dedicated, and they work extremely hard. I do believe that in 99.95 percent of the cases we do a really good, excellent job.
"With human beings, personalities, in reality we'll probably never reach 100 percent," he said, "even though that's our expectation. I think that is what's really hard is when even one or two children that we can't figure it out and falls through the cracks.
Sterling said caseworkers are devoted to preventing that.
"It's a difficult job. I'm not going to say it's not," she said. "It's hard to be out there with that responsibility on your shoulders. But we do it because we want kids to be safe."