I’ll preface my comments by saying that I’ve done ALMOST everything there is to do in child welfare. I’ve been a caseworker, a residential youth worker, a supervisor, a manager, a trainer, a foster parent, a CASA volunteer, a consultant, and an advocate. I’ve worked in public and private settings. I’ve worked at local, state, and national levels. I’ve tinkered with policy, dabbled in data, and lobbied for legislation. There are two things I’ve never done: I’ve never served as a lawyer or a judge. Oh, and I should add that I’ve never been a researcher but I have spent a fair amount of time evaluating outcomes and analyzing data. It’s not quite the same, I know. But I think I can still say I’ve achieved a well-rounded education in child welfare.
I would not trade any of my experiences for a million dollars. (However, if you have a million lying around that you’d like to share, I would gladly accept it AND put it to great use in child welfare!) My ‘elevator speech‘ or 30-second description of the many roles within the child welfare system would go something like the following.
Foster Parent: This is at the top of the list for a reason. It is THE MOST DIFFICULT role I’ve ever held. And probably the most under-appreciated and under-acknowledged. It is without a doubt, the most important role in ensuring a child’s well-being within the child welfare system.
CASA Worker: This is probably the most rewarding role I’ve held. And it would tie (with foster parenting) as the most frustrating. (The latter is due mostly to the particular case situations with which I dealt. I don’t think this is true all, or even most of the time. I hope not anyway!) This is a role that should be present in EVERY child welfare case (IMHO) but sadly, it is the exception rather than the rule.
Caseworker: I probably knew the least while in this position, worked the longest hours, and I felt powerless most of the time. This is when my REAL education began. If I only knew then what I know now….
Youth Worker: This position is probably at the bottom of the child welfare heap. Like many in the field, this is where I had my first introduction into child welfare. The youth worker is generally grossly underpaid, works horrible hours, and knows little about the circumstances of the children with whom they interact on a daily basis.
Supervisor: This is the sandwich role….supervisors are sandwiched between trying to best support caseworkers and ‘tow the party line’ when it comes to agency mandates and bureaucratic nonsense. A good supervisor understands secondary trauma or compassion fatigue and works diligently to mitigate its’ impact on caseworkers and ultimately, the impact on outcomes for children and families.
Manager: This role requires being a ‘jack of all trades’. One must be proficient as a therapist, financial administrator, supervisor, contract negotiator (and oversight specialist) and policy expert. It also may involve such critical tasks as selecting and purchasing carpet and furniture, moderating disputes, and overlooking minor and major personality quirks.
Trainer: One must be comfortable functioning as an island and a team member when providing training. You are not quite a part of ‘THE (child welfare) TEAM’, often have an office separated from ‘THE TEAM’, and are expected to have a thorough understanding of the daily operations of ‘THE TEAM’.
Consultant: These folks must see the big picture, understand the big picture, be able to explain the big picture, translate the big picture, and support the people who are in the quicksand affectionately known as child welfare practice. The fairy tale about the emperor’s new clothes comes to mind. The message may not always be what the organizational representatives want, or are willing, to hear.
Advocate: Here you must be able to play in multiple playgrounds and must be expert in everything. The advocate is a policy expert, a data analyst, a collaborator, and a negotiator. The advocate must have excellent communication skills and be capable of using them with little or no notice in a wide range of settings. And above all, the advocate always looks out for those who most deserve a voice in the system: the children.
That’s my elevator description of the various roles in the child welfare system. If you happen to be reading this and are involved as a lawyer or judge, please do share your perspectives. I would also welcome insights from a real researcher as I suspect my researcher-wannabe view lacks the je ne sais quoi that a research might share.