During 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.