Too Many Caseworkers Doomed to Struggle

Social-Worker-with-ChildDuring the month of March, we are invited to honor social workers, many of whom are caseworkers, the lynchpins of the foster care system. These are the people who have the day-to-day responsibility for ensuring the safety and well-being of children who have come to the attention of the child welfare system.

Most children enter foster care because of neglect—some because of abuse—physical and/or sexual. They are injured, frightened, and vulnerable children who need the protective care of adults. The responsibility for creating permanency for these children—whether through reunification with their parents, adoption, or guardianship—falls to the caseworkers.

It would seem that we would want the people we entrust with this level of responsibility to be trained and well-informed. Yet less than 30 percent of child welfare workers have either a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work and over 80 percent of states have no requirement for professional credentials for caseworkers, according to a report by the Child Welfare League of America published in 1999.

In practical terms, this means that we are asking people without relevant education or training to provide services and support to children and families during periods of extreme distress and upheaval.

The stress of attempting to perform well without adequate education or preparation is compounded by caseloads that often far exceed the Child Welfare League of America’s recommendation of 12 to 15 cases per worker. Imagine having responsibility for more than 100 children who have been removed from their families. In some instances, a worker might have to drive several hours to make the recommended monthly visit to a child.

High caseloads significantly impinge on a worker’s capacity to spend the time necessary to get to know each family and arrange for the services that would give them the best chance of recovery and reunification. Too much work and not enough time also result in delays in the court hearings necessary to keep a case on track for a permanent plan for a child.

It is most unfortunate, but hardly surprising, that the rate of staff turnover in child welfare ranges between 20 percent and 40 percent annually, draining precious financial resources that could be used more effectively to retain and support staff with enhanced training.

Of course, high staff turnover drains not only financial resources but human resources as well. The morale of the workers left behind drops and, if they have to cover additional cases, the quality of their work suffers. Supervisors must keep their attention focused on overseeing and teaching the basics to new workers rather than enjoying the satisfaction of helping more experienced caseworkers hone their skills.

Of course, when a caseworker leaves, every child and family on her caseload suffers the disruption of another relationship. Sometimes caseworkers take or make the time to say goodbye, and sometimes they are so emotionally depleted that they just disappear, leaving those they worked with and cared for wondering and perhaps worrying about what happened.

Too often, caseworkers shoulder the blame for the ills that beset the child welfare system. It is important that we remember the very traumatic scenes they witness every day, the very difficult challenges the children on their caseloads present, and the very hard work they do to try to make things better for families. We owe them our respect and heartfelt thanks.

Toni Heineman is the founder and executive director of A Home Within, which matches volunteer therapists with current or former foster youths.

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Toni Heineman
About Toni Heineman 15 Articles
I am licensed as a Clinical Social Worker and Clinical Psychologist and serve on the Clinical Faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at UCSF. I am the founder and Executive Director of A Home Within, and the author of numerous articles on identifying and meeting the emotional needs of children, youth, and young adults in foster care.


  1. Thank you for your thoughtful article. My first job out of undergraduate school was as a child welfare worker. I just wanted to ‘do good.’ And I had little idea of what was involved in achieving that good. I had some great MSW supervisors who coached me as I went out into the field to visit families in trouble. This is where I learned about compassion for others and an appreciation for my own upbringing. That compassion has stayed with me until now. I learned so much from the families and the foster families and I still believe that I got more from our contacts then they did. I do believe that this job should only be given to people with professional academic degrees-social workers. And I am working with the Deans and Directors of the MA Schools of Social Work to promote child welfare work as a career choice. My experience at DCG (now DCF) was a foundation for my going to MSW graduate school.

    Carol Trust, Executive Director, NASW, MA Chapter.

  2. So true all the comments stated. I would love to speak out for those that left like myself.Even though the job of a social worker was demanding if you were dedicated you like my self you feel a sense of guilt for leaving the families but they stay in your heartt. I will never forget the help i provided and and smiles on the faces of the children. I do miss social work and sometimes i think about getting back into the field. It is rewarding. Sometimes some people have to take a break.

  3. Thanks for founding A Home Within, one of the greatest ideas I have come across! I appreciate your article, since I am a child welfare social worker who recently resigned from my position due to the crushing demands of the work, and I’m now blogging about my experience. I’d like to call your attention to some of the reasons I left, which you did not address in your article. They include the huge amount of busywork that is required and has no benefit for the children, the need to work with many foster parents who are in it for the money and don’t care about the children, and the inability to access the more intensive residential options that some of our clients need. I hope you will check out my blog at

  4. Thank you. Sometimes just recognition of a job that I love and others don’t understand, much less respect, makes the difference in a day!

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