Families shudder at the name.
The Department of Human Services Child Welfare Division has a reputation for swooping in and tearing families apart. You might say DHS has a bit of an image problem. But behind the stern departmental exterior, there are people working hard to keep children safe and put families back together. I had the opportunity to interview one of those people—and to learn how she uses asking questions as an effective public relations strategy to connect with parents, children and the public.
Afternoon sun crept past the curtains and spilled onto the wood floor. I was in the house of a woman who asks questions to earn her living.
Crystal Rutherford, wearing basketball shorts and a T-shirt, flopped onto a recliner with her 5-day-old girl. She was on three-month leave from her job at the Department of Human Services.
“How important are questions in your work?” I asked.
Marsaili, her 3-year-old, ran up and offered me a dripping orange popsicle. She insisted I eat it while she broke off and licked half.Embed from Getty Images
“I’m in the business of asking questions,” Rutherford answered. “More than anything else. And always verifying everything.”
Rutherford recently switched from being a caseworker to a social service assistant because she gets to do more of what she loves—reuniting children and parents. “I’m not ‘the system’ anymore,” said Rutherford. “So people open up to me more than when I was a caseworker.”
But that doesn’t make asking questions easy. “With kids, I don’t delve too deep unless it’s a report of abuse. I tread lightly because I don’t want to add trauma,” she said. Questioning parents is hard too. “Sometimes a parent will get on a tangent and run in circles around their own head until they lose the point. Sometimes I let them run. Other times stop them. Sometimes I tell them, ‘I understand what you’re saying,’ even if I don’t agree. I listen. I give positive feedback. I ask intense questions—but remind them they’re not alone.”
Rutherford builds trust over time. “I build rapport by sitting down with them. Sometimes it’s just taking two hours out of your day to sit with a foster parent rather than the 45 minutes you actually have to spare.”
Marsaili scooted closer to me, opening a coloring book and popping the lids off Crayola markers.Embed from Getty Images
“Human connection matters,” Rutherford said. While pregnant, she found people were nicer to her. “I wasn’t seen as a threat. They’re like, ‘She’s just a homely woman with a baby.’ I used that to my advantage. You have to be a little vulnerable sometimes. It helps push the boundaries and build trust.”
But getting too comfortable is problematic. In DHS, not asking questions is not just lazy—it’s dangerous. She recounted the story of a toddler who died because a caseworker had assumed a house was safe. Rutherford admitted she too has made mistakes. She used to ask mostly yes or no questions, which wasn’t always helpful. “I should have been more open-ended because I ended up not having the answers I needed until I started asking more probing questions,” Rutherford said.
Yet Rutherford loves her job. “I wanted to be a caseworker because I was a child in the system myself,” she said.
In 1991, Rutherford was removed from a home of neglect, abuse and addiction and placed with her great-grandparents. “The hardest time for me was when I was little,” Rutherford said. She didn’t understand why her mom had abandoned her. She felt isolated, anxious and angry.
Every evening, her great-grandpa read her a story or completed a word puzzle with her. Every night when she curled up in bed, her great-grandma sat beside her and listened while she talked about her day. “They never made me feel like a burden,” she said. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today without my grandparents.”
When Crystal grew up, she knew she wanted to help other children in similar circumstances. So she became a social worker, and she continues to be the face of DHS for the many families who meet her every day. “I wanted to give back,” she said, “to the system that gave me everything I needed.”
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