Kids in Crisis

Weighing the protection of children against the rights of the parents.

When does discipline cross the line to become abuse? It’s a tough challenge for the child welfare system to weigh the protection of children against the rights of parents. In the United States there are only 25,000 caseworkers charged with investigating nearly 2 million child abuse claims each year. With extraordinary access from the Indiana Supreme Court, MSNBC-TV took an unprecedented look inside the complex world of child abuse investigators. This is the story of one family torn apart when one of their children makes a claim that ultimately causes trauma for them all. You can decide who is telling the truth and ultimately whether the state’s actions were in the children’s best interest.

It was a quiet spring night in Indianapolis in a blue-collar neighborhood on the city’s south side. A phone call earlier in the day had set off a chain of events. The call brought a child welfare investigator to the home of Cary and Michelle Pitcock. Michelle’s 13-year-old daughter Amber accused her stepfather of abuse; he claims it’s Amber that is causing the family turmoil. The drama that played out over the next year shows what a fine line there can be between protecting parents’ rights versus the welfare of children.

Michelle Pitcock and her daughter Amber

Michelle and Cary Pitcock are married with 3 children, Amber, Michelle’s daughter from a previous marriage, and two sons, Karl and Brent. The Pitcocks have been a blended family of 5 for 10 years, but the last year has been especially tough.

Cary Pitcock, Amber’s step dad says he and his wife Michelle are at a loss about how to handle their teenage daughter. They said she’s running wild and out of control. And that night was a perfect example.

Jackie Bean, the child welfare investigator assigned to this case, follows up on a report from 13-year-old Amber who says her step dad hit her. Amber was put in protective custody at a local hospital that night with cuts and bruises she received just hours earlier. At 9 p.m. on a school night Jackie showed up, with a police escort, at the Pitcock’s Southside Indianapolis home to check out the story.

It had only been a matter of hours since this crisis escalated, set in motion with a phone call to police from Cary and Michelle asking for help with the daughter they claim was out of control. Cary assumed Jackie and her police escort were there to haul him off to jail because of Amber’s claims he beat her earlier in the day. Instead of Cary being removed from the home - he learns the truth: they’re here to take away his other two kids. Investigator Bean fears Pitcock’s younger children are in danger.

This is the most gut-wrenching part of a child welfare investigator’s job…

Cary and Michelle Pitcock are in a state of shock. They’ve just been told their two kids will be taken away and the news hasn’t sunk in yet.

As Karl and Brent are taken away from the only home they’ve known they and their parents have no idea of the turmoil ahead.

The two boys face a long night and investigator Jackie bean has hours of phone calls and paper work.

At the heart of her case is 13-year-old Amber who also has no clue about the months and years of chaos this one night has brought on.

So, just who is telling the truth on this night? Is it Amber, who has accused her step dad of abuse? Or is it Cary, her stepfather? At this point, Jackie doesn’t know for sure. Just how far can the government go to learn the truth?

Balancing the rights of parents with the welfare of their children: it’s not only complicated it can be explosive. Taking a child from his parents is one of the most intrusive acts our government can make.

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