Chesterfield CPS leaders explain process after school abuse cases dismissed: 'This work is so difficult'

Posted at 6:57 PM, May 02, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-03 10:40:39-04

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va -- As multiple teachers at a Chesterfield preschool have been charged with allegedly assaulting students, police have discovered that Chesterfield-Colonial Heights Child Protective Services (CPS) "screened out," or essentially dismissed, cases of alleged abuse without referring them to law enforcement.

When Chesterfield Police later investigated the cases, they found probable cause to charge two teachers at Chester Early Childhood Learning Academy with misdemeanor assault and battery.

For several weeks, CBS 6 has attempted to interview officials with the Chesterfield-Colonial Heights Social Services Department, the agency which oversees CPS, to get answers as to how the cases were handled.

This week, Director Kiva Rogers and Assistant Director of Family Services Danika Briggs agreed to an interview.

However, they said they could not discuss the specific cases in question, due to ongoing investigations, nor hypothetical situations. Rather, they spoke on department policy and process.

Chesterfield-Colonial Heights Child Protective Services

“This work is so difficult, challenging, and ever-changing," Rogers said. “Constantly, we're looking at our policies and procedures, and when we do that, we have to also look at how we work together with our partners to see if there's anything that needs to change and shift with that.”

So, what happens when CPS receives a complaint of alleged abuse? Briggs explained the step-by-step process:

  • An intake worker gathers information from the reporter and asks follow-up questions to get descriptions of the incident and those involved
  • The worker uses an intake tool to determine whether the provided information meets the criteria for abuse or neglect as defined by state code and department policy (Of note, validity criteria for public school employees are even stricter than in-family allegations.)
  • A supervisor will then review the information from the intake worker and determine if it's "screened in" or "screened out"
  • Cases that are "screened in" will then either be assigned for a family assessment or an investigation (Of note, valid reports involving school employees would be assigned for an investigation)

Briggs said CPS workers need as much information as possible from reporters.
“That information could make the difference of whether a report is screened in or validated," Briggs said.

There are also certain cases that CPS is mandated to refer to law enforcement. According to state code, CPS must refer cases involving an injury or threatened injury against a child suspected of being a class one misdemeanor or felony.

In the cases at Chester Early Childhood Learning Academy, court documents showed CPS received reports of teachers who spanked children, pulled their hair, grabbed their necks, and smacked their faces.

A search warrant affidavit revealed that a detective obtained a copy of a CPS report from December. Information about a teacher allegedly spanking, smacking, and grabbing students' necks was detailed in that CPS report.

Another CPS reported filed in August and obtained by police allegedly showed the teacher pulled a child's hair and restrained them with her legs.

However, police said CPS "screened out" those cases and did not report them to law enforcement.

Police later found out about the incidents when parents who were upset with how the cases were handled came forward to law enforcement.

So, how could law enforcement find evidence of alleged abuse in cases that CPS previously screened out?

"We have differing authorities that allow us to act. And so, from a child protective services standpoint, we're not able to act unless it meets that validity criteria," Briggs said.

"It's not uncommon that if there is an incident where we did not have the information to make a validity determination at that point in time, if law enforcement finds out about it, through whether it's something that we refer to them or somebody else contacted law enforcement, they don't have the same threshold that we have to even take action," Rogers added.

Since the first preschool teacher was arrested in March, police said they've received an increase in referrals coming from CPS.

Rogers said that while the heightened media attention of that case played a role in the increase, CPS has also received a higher number of referrals this year compared to the same time last year.

"Do you as director ever take an internal review, look at previous cases to say, 'Oh, maybe this one was screened out, but maybe it shouldn't have?' or, 'Maybe this went to the wrong track?' Is there any type of review or oversight in that capacity?" reporter Tyler Layne asked.

“We review in house our records. We also are reviewed by the Virginia Department of Social Services, who will come in and do audits on our work, and sometimes we’re reviewed by outside auditors as well," Rogers responded.

In a new statement sent to CBS 6 Tuesday, the Virginia Department of Social Services, which oversees 120 localities, said it is working with Chesterfield-Colonial Heights Social Services "to ensure CPS policies and practices are being followed and that the agency is operating at the highest level."

"Are you confident that your team and your staff and the way that the process is set up and the way we see it play out in real life and real cases are keeping children safe?" Layne asked Rogers.

"That's something we are looking at ongoing and looking at all of our processes and ensuring that we have good processes to respond to situations," Rogers answered. "And so, I think that it's very important to know for the community that we are looking at that at all times."

Rogers said the CPS program is grappling with some vacancies but "getting to a good place" with staffing. She has eight out of nine CPS investigator positions currently filled, and among the additional 24 CPS support staff positions, she's working to fill five full-time positions and one part-time position.

She said it takes about a year for an employee to go through all the required training, which is why retention is critical.

Overall, she said CPS historically is a system that's dealt with high turnover rates, low pay, and stressful work conditions, but that the county has made investments into supplementing salaries and increasing mental health supports for social services workers. She said those efforts are making a positive impact on the department.

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