Let’s make 2024 the year of the child welfare caseworker. Let’s elevate the importance of their work, the complex and nuanced nature of interactions with families and the role they play in social reform and systems transformation. Let’s give them credit for doing a job that few others want to do, for being on call at 3 a.m. to visit a family in crisis, for eating their lunches in their cars and living with job descriptions that consistently indicate “other duties as assigned.”
Let’s nurture the idealism and enthusiasm of young professionals with their freshly minted degrees and reinforce their social justice values that drove them to the work. Let’s pay them well and respect that they have families of their own who have social, emotional and material needs.
And let’s make 2024 the year we stop the bashing of child welfare professionals by armchair critics who have never once had to enter a home where a parent is in full meltdown mode — into situations that even law enforcement is reluctant to tread. Because if we don’t do something soon to honor the role of caseworkers, we will have almost no one to support families and serve as credible reporters on the front line of social reform.
We’ve had a few years of drought in our efforts to recruit caseworkers. It’s no wonder. The pejorative words that have been used of late to describe their roles, such as policing, etc., assigning a rating scale to their potential biases, or unilaterally denigrating caseworkers’ roles in the lives of families; all of this has accomplished nothing but to drive young people away from the profession. This follows years of systemic underappreciation of caseworkers whose wages, benefits and working conditions are not even remotely close to their peers in other professions.
Recently, I had a friend contact me and asked if I would speak with his daughter, who is considering a career in child welfare. The young woman told me that she was reluctant to talk about her interest with her professor or with other students because they consider the casework role, “an example of harming and exploiting people.”
Really? In the decades of doing what we do, and serving people in populated and remote communities of this country, we have no examples of what has worked to advance the well-being of children and families? We have no evidence of family support programming that kept large numbers of kids in their own homes? No foster care situations that provided healing time for a child and their parents? No instances of how our front-line observations and experiences informed our systemic improvements and change efforts?
Are there no credible accounts of how a career in child welfare can be a manifestation of one’s belief in social justice, faith in action or simply wanting to make a difference? I don’t understand how we’ve bought into this narrative of negativity.
There is an irony to this denigration of a whole profession. We minimize the complex nature of the work when we treat the system like it is one-dimensional. And, we undermine the validity of the caseworker’s daily grind when we tell them there is no such thing as child maltreatment, only a “construct” we’ve invented for social control. It’s as if caseworkers have to repent for a sin of best intentions and compassion, meaning there is no repentance.
Effective caseworker practice in child welfare does not have to imply social control. We fall short if we simply encourage families to adjust to unfair, impossible circumstances. To be clear, we should help people cope more effectively with their problems in social functioning. Caseworkers can assist families to enhance their personal relationships and find solutions to their histories of trauma, substance use and mental health issues. We can even encourage them to speak up against unjust circumstances. But the spirit of our profession is also one that started in Settlement Houses, where the experience attending to abandoned children led to child protection laws.
The National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics states that “social workers promote social justice and social change” and that we do so by using a variety of methods, including direct practice, case management, macro-policy practices like community organizing and political advocacy. Individual work with families who are right in front of us and in need of immediate assistance, as well as the conditions that create their heightened level of challenge, are not differing realities. We can’t manage one without attending to the other.
To understand our casework practice in child welfare means seeing the people we serve as a movement in the same tradition as social justice reformers like Dorothy Day. Young caseworkers should be encouraged to find the common ground of unity connecting individual situations and collective problem solving.
In 2024, let’s be more intentional about integrating caseworkers into roles of influence and decision-making within our organizations. When it comes to the ambiguous nature of this work, they too have lived experiences and perspectives that have significant relevance and value.
In an interview about her play “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry discussed the messaging in her story. In an attempt to highlight challenges that are part of the human condition, Hansberry said that you achieve the universal through the specific, meaning that smaller, more relatable examples help us understand the complex and contradictory nature of life. Likewise, if we are serious about transforming, even improving our approach to supporting families and keeping kids safe, then we should rely on those observable examples of how individual scenarios of struggle and achievement have led the way toward a deeper understanding of systems improvement and change.
In all of our sweeping conversations about transforming the child welfare system, we’ve not spent enough time parsing the particulars of what that means. Effective learning in our work involves more than facts. It requires us to grasp the feel and the tone of how people interact with each other. The last time I checked, it was caseworkers who had that front-row seat.