Early in my career, a supervisor told me that the dirty little secret in child welfare was that the system tends to reward those who persevere in their jobs by pushing them further away from kids and families. The implication was clear. If you were left behind to continue with direct service responsibilities, there must be something wrong with you.
His comment was a reflection of how poorly my older peers perceived “clients.” It also highlighted where direct service staff stood in the pecking order of our profession.
More recently, I heard a colleague say we needed big changes in child welfare and made the sweeping charge that the system’s social workers were a big part of the problem. They were trying to convince us that our high numbers of children in care were due in large part to poor casework decisions.
My supervisor’s remarks, when I was younger, shook my belief in what I was doing, but I soon got past that. But the recent observation frustrated me much more.
Both comments caught me off guard and reminded me of the inherent binds of the social work role. First, in its current design, casework practice will yield consistently mediocre results because of systemic limitations. Second, an enduring fact; people who claim to understand the nature of this work frequently fail to grasp the complex nature of being a representative of a child protective services (CPS) agency. As a result, social work remains “the unloved profession.”
The first time a social worker has to interact with a family in crisis it becomes necessary for that person to remain in the moment, even though it would be more comfortable to leave. They walk through a family’s doorway, a proxy for our dark generational and historical baggage. Like the Biblical account in Genesis, these families and social workers are surrounded by our original sins. But in that moment, with our shared history and the potential danger a child might be facing, it has to be.
We tell social workers they are there to protect kids, preserve families, and assure a child’s permanent attachment to a significant adult. We ask them to understand the impact of poverty and race and the consequences of living in a marginalized community. We expect them to assure the fidelity of a specific practice model. We assume they will interact with other professionals from multiple disciplines and fully understand the language of medicine, education and psychology.
That’s not to say we have a fully trained, capable and well-supervised cadre of front-line social workers. We do not, and that reality has resulted in some dreadful decision making and disrespectful, even authoritarian practices with families. Let’s fulfill our responsibility and obligation to change that reality, but not lump every social worker in the same category.
We should call this out as the systemic issue it is. What good comes from blaming those few individuals who are willing to walk through neighborhoods and doors most people avoid driving by? Our systemic challenges are more complex than workforce alone.
No matter how we might prepare them, most CPS social workers are faced with limited options. A good deal is beyond their control. Frequently, the other helping systems in America are not in alignment with child welfare goals, are not easily accessible or available or they lack the depth that families in crisis need.
Then there is the unpredictable interpretation of the law by judges who try to balance child safety concerns with the delicate issue of government intervention in the lives of families. And even if everything else is in sync, and a caseworker does their best, a parent who is not ready or willing can still refuse to accept the help they might need.
So how do we change the nature of interactions between families and caseworkers so they reflect our desire for transformation? We can let their first meeting be adversarial and coercive or we can prepare our team members to go below the surface of what they see.
Before we drill our new caseworkers on tools and instruments, let’s instead start with the foundation for improving family well-being: empathy, refined listening skills, transparency, highlighting strengths and accomplishments, common courtesy, problem solving skills, patience and a reasonable response time.
They also need to understand the value and nuance of partnering with parents and other professionals. None of this precludes the value and importance of assessing child safety or helping a family to create harm reduction strategies. But this enhanced approach will show a family where our broader priorities lie.
Historically, those least qualified to understand the complexity of the CPS tasks are the ones most likely to pile on when a poor casework decision is made. Those who have never carried a caseload will tell us that direct service social workers are the reason for falling short on our goals. That’s not system change. It is myopic micro-management.
It isn’t acceptable to advocate for systemic reform and transformation at the expense of those charged with the almost impossible tasks of keeping kids safe and parents engaged. And there is no upside to resting all of our historical and systemic baggage on the backs of social workers.