To Improve Child Welfare, Let Social Workers do Social Work

March is National Social Work month, and there will be a lot of talk about the importance of social workers. But for all of the praise heaped on the profession, there sure seems to be a lack of support for people willing to do the job.

In Texas, one-sixth of new caseworkers quits within six months. In Florida, case worker turnover averaged 37 percent in 2014.

I know first-hand the reasons for high social worker turnover in child welfare. I abandoned an easier and better-paying career to become a child welfare social worker in the District of Columbia. I lasted almost five years before giving up in exhaustion and despair.

At first, I loved my job. I loved the feeling of making a difference in children’s lives. I loved trying to find the right services to meet the needs of the children and their birth parents. I loved teaming with teachers and service providers to help my kids and parents achieve their goals. I was thrilled when I was able to find a family friend or relative who could provide a permanent home for a child.

Every day I came to work with a long to-do list. But I never knew if all my plans would be derailed by one of the frequent crises that characterize foster care. A foster parent was fed up with a defiant teenager and wanted her out today. A client said she wanted to die and had to be taken to the hospital, where we would wait for seven hours. A client was sick and the foster parent couldn’t pick her up. The best foster parents do the emergency pickups and doctor visits, but the foster parent shortage means that agencies tolerate those who do little but provide room and board.

A huge part of my job involved driving. Some of my clients lived as far as 30 miles–over an hour’s drive in the congested Washington D.C. metro area–from the office. One was 90 miles away, just under the 100-mile limit so that I was still required to visit him twice a month.

When foster parents said they could not, and our overworked paraprofessionals were unavailable, I had to take my clients to the doctor, dentist, therapist, and for family visits. I spent as much as 10 hours a week driving and I logged as many as 300 miles per month. I don’t see how it makes sense for a person with a master’s degree in social work to serve as a paid driver.

Finally, there was the endless list of useless things I had to do to meet process-oriented standards that only detracted from helping my clients. In the District of Columbia, all children need a case plan every six months. All children over the age of 14 need a different Youth Transition Plan every six months. All children in therapeutic foster care need a separate treatment plan every six months. All of these plans must follow prescribed formats which make them impossible to consolidate with each other, difficult to use and not very useful in my work with clients.

All children must be visited twice a month, or four times a month when they are in a new setting. On average, I saw my clients more than required. But the need to do a second monthly visit with a client who is thriving instead of a third visit with one who is struggling just makes no sense.

All clients have to receive a health screening every time they change foster homes, even for respite placement for a week. Some clients end up being screened four times in a month!

Things were at their worst whenever one of my colleagues left the job. I would then get two or three more cases and things became totally out of control. For the next two to three months, until a replacement was hired and trained, proactive case management took a back seat to crisis management, and the stress became almost unbearable.

I received a lot of praise from supervisors, attorneys, and judges because my clients got the services they needed and my cases actually moved toward permanency. But after five years, I could no longer maintain the brutal pace and the constant stress.

For most child welfare social workers in D.C., and I would guess around the country, there are simply not enough hours in a day to do the work that matters plus the work that is required. Too many hours have to be spent doing things that others should do, or things that just sound good and don’t really help the clients.

If we want to keep social workers on the job and helping their clients, we must eliminate meaningless requirements, hire more paraprofessionals to do the driving, and ensure that foster parents do their jobs.

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Marie K. Cohen
About Marie K. Cohen 68 Articles
Marie K. Cohen (MPA, MSW) is a child advocate, researcher, and policy analyst. She worked as social worker in the District of Columbia's child welfare system for five years. She is a member of the Citizen's Review Committee for the DC Child and Family Services Agency and the DC Child Fatality Review Commission and a mentor to a foster youth. Follow her blog at fosteringreform.blogspot.org, on Facebook at Fostering Reform or on Twitter@fosteringreform.

1 Comment

  1. I think the missing ingredient is the community’s responsibility to meet the needs of its members. Child Welfare should only be a cog in the wheel of support a family receives – to monitor the case and foster placement, report to the court, and perhaps create a central hub for information – not to man the entire effort. Child Welfare and foster care are designed and implemented to be temporary and by statute are fairly time-limited (ASFA sets some pretty firm limits); the families we work with will remain in our communities long after Child Welfare is gone, so solutions should be based in the long-term – something our community supports must (and should) bear the burden of in order for our families in need to be successful.

    It would be immensely encouraging to begin conversations regarding how our communities can support our families, not what Child Welfare, acting alone, has done to fail them. Virtually anyone with exposure to the Child Welfare system knows its many limitations; the possibility of our communities supporting our families in a long-term, culturally appropriate manner is far greater than a single agency, acting in virtual isolation, to do so.

    Perhaps offer the possibility of Collective Impact – disburse the responsibility and accountability for supporting families experiencing distress to our communities and allow Child Welfare to assess and monitor the safety of its children, as the system was designed. Child Welfare isn’t a solution to our families experience of distress, it is a time-limited response to mitigate the results of that distress.

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