Child welfare services are far more intricate and significant than most people realize. There are approximately 7,000 foster parents in Michigan caring for approximately 12,000 children. Nationally, nearly a quarter of a million children enter the child welfare system each year; the average length of care remains over two years. At any given moment almost a half million children are in care. This indicates that in a ten year period, two and a half million children have been in care. For better or worse, these children have a tremendous effect on society. We generally understand that they are our future, but may not fully realize that we are their present.
The percentage of these children who are in group foster care varies widely from state to state but the average is near 10 to 15 percent. The other 85 to 90 percent are in family foster homes.
The cast of people in the child welfare system who deal with the children are foster parents, caseworkers and their supervisors, lawyers (Guardians ad litum), and judges. There are others who have an impact on children in the system such as Court Appointed Special Advocates, teachers, school social workers, and their parents or other relatives who may be involved; however, caseworkers and their supervisors maintain a significant amount of influence.
Child welfare is the only discipline considered to be the domain of social workers. For many years child welfare services were separate state organizations administered by social workers. The educational norm for casework staff was one year of graduate school. Schools of social work and child welfare agencies collaborated when practice issues were incorporated into curriculums. In the 1960s, the Federal government imposed administrative changes that reduced the number of child welfare caseworkers who had social work training to 25 percent. Because of current Federal Title XX training, funds have increased to allow 40 percent of case managers to have social work training; the majority of casework staff still has no social work training.
Many studies indicate that this lack of training is significant for both workers and clients:
- Albers E., Reilly, & Ritner B. (1993). Possible Factors Affecting Permanence. This article shows that social workers with BSW and MSW degrees are more effective in developing permanence for children who have been in foster care more than two years.
- Anderson & Dinah. (1994). Coping strategies and Burnout Among Veteran Child Protection workers. The study shows that social work education, especially graduate education, reduces burnout which is a major cause of turnover. These findings are especially significant. A study in Milwaukee several years ago indicated that if a child has one caseworker there is a 70 percent chance of achieving permanence. With two caseworkers, the chance of achieving permanence drops to 17 percent.
- Child Welfare League of America. (1990). FL Recruitment and Retention. This study showed that workers without educational preparation for child welfare were most likely to leave before one year. The study links to research by Hess, Floran, and Jefferson; and Jefferson, which found that worker turnover was a major factor in failed reunification efforts.
- Agency support also was cited as a major factor in social worker retention by Harrison, Selma, and Garret (1995), whose study found that workers who believe their knowledge, skills, and professional education are underutilized are most likely to leave.
What is “permanence”? It simply means that a child has been connected with a lifetime family, connected with their own relatives, or adopted by non-relatives. While this sometimes is not possible, it should be the goal for every child and is the primary focus of the caseworker.
The quality of social work education also depends on whether schools of social work provide courses specific to child welfare. Social work theory is necessary, but learning how to apply it is equally as important. In my opinion, courses specific to child welfare can do this and should be encouraged at both the BSW and MSW levels.
The attitudes and actions of persons with authority can help or hinder performance of the people they supervise. A 2006 University of South Florida study in child welfare indicated that about 40 percent of workers who resign do so in order to get away from a supervisor. With careful selection, training, and administrative oversight this can be avoided. Turnover of foster parents, like agency staff turnover, is extremely expensive for agencies and reduces positive outcomes for clients. Many of the dynamics are similar for worker-supervisor relationships and worker-foster parent relationships.
Child welfare agencies often provide training for supervisors. Even though foster parents are not supervised administratively, the process in many respects is similar. Caseworkers who work with foster parents need supervisor training as much as casework supervisors do. Some of the qualities applicable to both supervisors and caseworkers are:
- taking responsibility for knowing agency policies and its resources, utilizing them when needed
- clarifying expectations of foster parents
- being aware of community resources that foster parents can use
- maintaining positive relationships with other units of the agency where cooperation is needed
- accepting that their role is to educate, support, guide and encourage
- encouraging foster parents to provide quality care and supporting their efforts
- promoting team effort with parents
- listening to concerns of foster parents, children, and their parents
- willing to learn from the knowledge sets of others
- being sensitive to the unique needs of foster parents and children
- keeping a sense of humor
The best of training can be negated when the agency CEO is not aware or supportive of what is taught. This is extremely difficult for staff. Administrators need to learn alongside their staff in order to be able to support the training or make changes.
One of the most difficult experiences for foster parents is being accused of abusing children in their care. It is especially frightening because agencies stop all contact with them until the report has been investigated. While this may be unavoidable, foster parents need to know in advance what the agency policy is. They also need to connect with someone who can be supportive of them when it occurs while also remaining neutral.
If agencies are not able to provide that service they can encourage other foster parents to take that role. There are many advantages to developing a local foster parent association and this is one of the ways they can provide support to their own members.
Caseworkers have a central role in a complex social service system while at the same time must adhere to judicial orders. Each person in this system needs to be well informed about the roles, tasks, and responsibilities of each stakeholder involved in a foster care case. Because of this, older children, foster parents, and parents, where reunification is possible, are needed in court hearings to help the judge be as informed as possible about children and parents’ needs, potential, and goals.
The catalyst role of the caseworker can make this possible and hopefully always keep the focus on the simple question: “What is best for the child?