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The disturbing, heartbreaking reality of Child Protective Services caseworkers

Heartbreaking reality of CPS caseworkers
The disturbing, heartbreaking reality of Child Protective Services caseworkers 05:59

"CTM in Focus" is the original reporting you'll see only on "CBS This Morning," exposing new information on issues that impact us all. This April, 5-year-old AJ Freund was found dead in Illinois, and his parents were charged with murder. After Freund's death, "CBS This Morning" started looking into how something like this could allegedly happen, despite previous interventions by police and child welfare workers.

We discovered that hundreds of American children known to Child Protective Services die of maltreatment every year. To learn more, we spent a day with a CPS caseworker in Outagamie County, Wisconsin – and learned the disturbing and heartbreaking reality of the profession.

One of the mothers Brittany Plamann works with is pregnant with her fifth child -- and admits to using methamphetamines as recently as two weeks ago. It's Plamann's job to determine whether the kids living here are in danger.

As a caseworker for the Children, Youth & Families Division in Outagamie County, Wisconsin, Plamann has already helped by putting two of the kids in daycare, where one just took her first steps.

"She walked, and I didn't get to be there," the mother told Plamann tearfully.

"It's difficult that you've got to miss out on that," Plamann responded.

Plamann typically works with about 15 families at once. She's one of 28 social workers in a county of more than 180,000 people.

"We don't have enough, necessarily, staff at times to manage all of the families that we have to serve," said Melissa Blom, Plamann's boss and the division manager.

Plamann's goal is to keep families together -- but she's had to separate about a dozen of them in the past three years. "There are things that you just-- you can't fathom, you know, on a day to day basis," she said. "You can't fathom that a parent would do this to their child."

"Have you ever had doubts about whether or not you should've removed a child from their home?" asked "CBS This Morning" correspondent Jericka Duncan.

"Oh, yeah," Plamann responded, adding "There's definitely doubt. Am I doing the right thing? You know, who's gonna suffer from this the most?"

In 2017 alone, an estimated 1,720 children died from abuse and neglect in the U.S., and more than a quarter of those children were previously known to CPS agencies. The issue came to light earlier this year, following 5-year-old Andrew "AJ" Freund's death in Illinois. Police charged Freund's parents with murder, and child welfare workers had previously been called to their home. 

Stories like that frustrate state Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Maine, who's been focused on this issue for nearly two decades. The former teacher has introduced a bill pushing for a long-term commission to study the problems within his state's CPS department.

"Kids are being abused right now while you and I are talking. They're being abused, terribly," Diamond said. "The only reason we don't know who they are is because they haven't died yet."

"When I did the work for 16 years I had numerous children die, or be brutally assaulted," Blom said. "We still see that happening."

Child Protective Services manager on the "heart work" performed by caseworkers 04:04

Experts say caseworkers in many areas are underpaid and overworked. Reports of abuse have increased more than 12% since 2013. That's due in part to tougher laws that require the reporting of suspected abuse, and in part to an increase in calls related to the opioid epidemic. The number of kids in foster care in Outagamie County has doubled over the past four years.

"I would say 40% of the new kids coming in are because of drugs and alcohol," Blom said, adding "that and untreated parents' mental health. We're seeing parents more and more incarcerated and unavailable to meet the needs of their children."

One mother's addiction began with a prescription for painkillers after oral surgery 15 years ago.

"Like, I've never been homeless. I would hate to become homeless," she said. "But there are worse things: not being with my children would be one of them things."

"Have you ever had your children taken from you?" Duncan asked.

"Yes," she responded.

CPS workers say it's heart-wrenching to take kids away from their parents, and try to avoid it unless necessary.

"It's not only hard work, it's heart work," Blom said. "I think [Plamann] has seen this mother 85 times in 60 days. So we engage with parents and we want to help them do better. We want them to -- we wanna say goodbye. When kids reunify, when they get to go home from foster care, we celebrate that because a family gets to heal and be together, and be whole."  

Workers say they can reduce risks, but can't entirely eliminate the possibility that parents or caregivers will make tragic decisions after they leave. The typical caseworker in Outagamie County only stays for about three years before getting burned out and leaving. That's a problem, since it takes roughly two years to get replacements fully trained.

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