This is a notion that has been bouncing around in my brain for a while now so I think its time to put it in print. I was a case worker once; it was a long time ago. The experience has stayed with me though, and I still believe that things could and should be different.
I’ll say this upfront, this is going to be the topic of more than one, probably many, blog posts. Mainly because there are a few aspects I’ve been considering.
Since I began as a case worker, I was troubled by some aspects of the job; specifically, that it was impossible to provide every child and family the services they needed and deserved. Over the years, I’ve talked to a few people about my concerns. I think that a former colleague* really crystallized one of the major issues involved.
The problem: there is no way that a case worker can be an expert in all the areas in which they need to be experts. They work with adults challenged by substance abuse, and sometimes youth; persons with mental illness, again both adults and children. They deal with issues like multi-generational poverty, child abuse and neglect, health issues, education, and housing, to name just a few.
Take for example a snapshot of my caseload when I started in foster care (re-created to the best of my recollection, with some details changed for confidentiality):
Family A includes 3 children, divorced parents, mentally ill mother, terminally ill father, two children with major attachment issues leading to suicide attempts at ages 7 and 12; in the system due to chronic neglect & poverty related challenges.
Family B includes middle class mother and step-father, rebellious teen who is the victim of sexual abuse and exhibiting pre-delinquent behaviors.
Family C includes 7 children, four of whom qualify for ICWA consideration (Indian Child Welfare Act), substance abusing mother and absent/unknown father(s), 3 children failing or near failing in school, 2 children under five with delayed development.
Family D includes intellectually challenged teenager, mother and father whereabouts unknown, sexual acting out, and poor school performance.
You see where I’m going with this…..a dozen issues presented in just four case scenarios. Add to the mix the fact that six different races/cultural backgrounds are represented in this small group. How can one case worker possibly work effectively with this diverse constellation of issues? Is it any wonder that child welfare agencies struggle so to meet the needs of children and families?
And consider also the fact that caseworkers come from a variety of personal, educational, experiential, and employment backgrounds. Some are trained as social workers. Most are not. Some have a degree in something related to social work or human services. Some do not. When I was a case worker, the supervisor in protective services had a degree in math. A colleague had a degree in french. Maybe 20% of the workforce had a degree in social work.
This is where I am really going to go out on a limb and say something that might not be particularly popular. I think that most case workers in public child welfare are not really social workers. They are outcome managers; their function is to maximize positive outcomes for vulnerable children and families. Rarely do they do this by providing direct services to families. Rather, they do this by negotiating a complex system of public and community agencies, courts, and dozens of other stakeholder providers and advocacy groups. In the best of all worlds, they are able to do this to get the child(ren) and families exactly what they need when they need it.
Therein lies part of the problem with preparing for a career in public child welfare. Social workers are trained to facilitate change in individuals and families. And the dozens of other educational training grounds that are represented in the workforce generally do not prepare students to manage outcomes. (In fact, as I found as a consultant reviewer for the Child and Family Service Reviews or CFSR‘s, few case workers recognize what is generally considered to be a positive outcome. I have interviewed dozens of case workers across the country. Many case workers would end interviews by asking if they ‘passed’ the federal outcome evaluation.)
Yes, in most if not all states/jurisdictions, case workers must go through a training program prior to taking on a caseload. (I spent a week in the capitol city learning about IV-E funding eligibility when I started as a case worker. Our leadership knew what was important! This is another topic I’ll be writing about — IV-E, that is.) Now there are several federally funded university based training programs designed to prepare case workers for the difficult task of managing a caseload of vulnerable children and families. In these training programs, case workers will spend anywhere from one week to a few months learning not only about the complexities of human development but also about managing paperwork, writing reports, testifying in court, utilizing data systems, and the dozens of other tasks involved in child welfare.
But at the end of the day, what is really expected of public child welfare case workers is that they manage cases so that children and families experience positive outcomes. In most jurisdictions, this means the case worker identifies appropriate community services (and often, social workers) who will assist the families in overcoming challenging life circumstances.
So while some are advocating for case workers to be licensed social workers and more university based training programs, I believe it is time to acknowledge that we expect case workers to manage outcomes and prepare them to do this effectively. Part two of this series will include details on where I believe this needs to begin.
*Thanks Pat Shapiro…for that lightbulb. Child welfare data geeks that were around before AFCARS–or the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System–will probably recognize the name.