A blog post titled “10 Things Foster Parents Wish Their Case Managers Knew” was published by a blogger named Mike Berry a few weeks ago. The list included some excellent reminders of the challenges faced by foster parents. As I was reading, it struck me that this is a two-way street. As a former case worker, myself (and my colleagues) often felt misunderstood by foster parents. In the spirit of collaboration and increased understanding, the following list is offered. This is not in defense, to make excuses, or to counter the foster parents’ list. Rather it is offered to express the empathy often unexpressed and the appreciation felt for the real heroes in the foster care system: foster parents; and to increase understanding of the challenges we face daily. My belief is that with mutual understanding we all can better serve vulnerable children and families.
1) We (caseworkers) know that you have the most difficult job in the child welfare system. Most caseworkers would not want your job regardless of the compensation (which, by the way, is much less than it should be in most cases). As a case manager who later became a foster parent, this is a lesson learned firsthand. Being a case manager was tough but providing foster care is, by far, more challenging. Caseworkers may not say this often enough, but every good case manager knows it to be true.
2) By virtue of the structure of the child welfare system, case managers have many ‘bosses’. The list of people who caseworkers ‘report to’ may include judges, attorneys, and review boards in addition to the direct supervisor and administrators within the child welfare agency. Unfortunately, the order of priority often leaves foster parents feeling left out or ignored. The bottom line is that, given a choice between responding to a supervisor, judge, or foster parent, the latter often lands at the end of the list. I wish that were not the case but the structure of the child welfare system forces difficult decisions on a daily basis, including, at times, which call to return or whether to spend time in court, in the office, or in the home of a foster parent.
This also means that we may need to do some things that are unpopular with a foster parent (and we don’t always agree with either). Taking a young child to known drug neighborhood or jail to visit their parent may not seem like a good idea but when we are ordered to do so or agency policy requires it, we have no choice but to follow the policy or court order.
3) In most jurisdictions, case managers carry caseloads which far exceed recommendations of every professional organization and accrediting agency knowledgeable of child welfare. This is not a mantra repeated by people who are looking for sympathy. It is the reality of child welfare agencies.
When I started as a case manager, my caseload was six times that recommended by the Council on Accreditation. In order to visit every child on my caseload monthly as was mandated by the child welfare agency, I would have had to work a minimum of 80-100 hours a week. And that is assuming that there would be no emergencies. This challenge was compounded by the fact that, throughout much of my casework career, there was a ‘freeze’ on overtime usage. The child welfare agency would not approve overtime and the policies prohibited working overtime without pay (although this rule was often ignored).
Granted, this is an extreme example and over time, my caseload was lowered. In the many years I have worked in child welfare, I have seen a steady lowering of caseloads. However, in many jurisdictions they are still 2 to 3 times the recommended level.
4) Case managers, as well as foster parents, often are dealing with secondary trauma, also known as vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. This can negatively impact our ability to do our jobs effectively. Fortunately the last few years there has been a movement to acknowledge and address the trauma associated with child welfare work. However, despite the progress, only a handful of jurisdictions have established trauma-informed workplaces.
[Secondary trauma can occur when a professional experiences stress or symptoms of trauma when working with traumatized children and families. For more information on trauma in child welfare systems, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network has excellent information and resources.]
5) Although our time may be limited, it helps us to be informed as things start to sour, rather than receive a call after things have fallen apart. We appreciate that you are trying to handle the ‘little things’ that arise but it helps us to know about the challenges along the way. Hopefully things will improve but when they don’t, we are better able to understand the progression of problems if we’ve been informed along the way. Keeping a log or jotting down some notes to share during our visit helps us to recognize the red-flag issues as they arise. We might recommend additional services to prevent the ‘big blow-up’ if we know about the smaller challenges.
6) Documentation helps us to help you and in decision-making. A daily behavioral diary, pictures of the aftermath of a tantrum, the recorded voice-mail message from the biological parent, and the notes from school all can help us. Not only does it give us valuable documentation of the challenges, it can also help us in identifying services that may help you in dealing with difficult behaviors.
7) If your case manager does not immediately return your calls, there may be any number of reasons. I cannot speak for all caseworkers on this but I know that there were times that the reason was, in part, because I trust foster parents to be capable of handling difficult situations. When there were a list of calls to return, those most in need made it to the top of the list. The seasoned foster parents that I trusted most might be shuffled to the ‘somewhat less urgent’ pile. It would be my preference that this type of prioritization were not necessary, but often it is.
8) You are right, we don’t always ‘get it’; please do explain in detail. When we go to court or back to our supervisors, we need to be armed with concrete examples. It is easier to convince a supervisor/administrator that you need extra respite time when they understand that you and your spouse are sleeping in shifts because Joey has slipped out of the house in the middle of the night four times in the last two weeks. It’s not that we didn’t believe you; we just need to be able to justify the approach or resources requested with several layers of bureaucratic obstacles.
9) Case managers are not created equal. As in every field, there are good caseworkers and some not-so-good caseworkers. Please don’t assume we are all the same. Just like you, we are learning about individual children and families as we go and most of us are trying to do our best to meet multiple demands in a thankless job–just like you. Keeping an open and honest dialogue can help both of us negotiate the challenge of the ‘bureaucratic parenthood’ known as the child welfare system.
10) Although it may not always appear to be true, most case managers do genuinely care about the children and families on their caseloads. At times, caseworkers may seem cold and uncaring, may make a decision you don’t agree with, or they may not respond with the degree of empathy that you might expect. While it may seem that some caseworkers don’t care about the kids, most of the time caseworkers are struggling to insulate themselves from the never-ending pain they see in the eyes of children in foster care. Like foster parents, we often are faced with tough and emotionally charged situations routinely. The bottom line is that we all want the same thing–for kids to be healthy, happy, safe, and loved.