INTRODUCTION: ‘My Goal Is to Return Power to Parents’ – A new series of stories by frontline staff about working with parents in child welfare

Caseworkers play such an important role in whether parents succeed in getting their children home from foster care.

When my son was in foster care, I had 5 or 6 caseworkers over the course of three years. Most of my caseworkers seemed like they were too busy to give me 5 minutes of their time, or were so scared of my anger that they avoided me. I used to feel so frustrated, thinking: “You never have time for me and my family.” “I need you now, not later.” “You just don’t care.”

With my last caseworker, though, I felt like I had someone on my side. She was honest and straightforward. She showed me how my own behavior was hurting my case, and she told me clearly what I needed to do to get my son home.

The Human Side

To build parents’ understanding of caseworkers and workers’ understanding of parents, Rise ran a writing group for frontline staff at the NYC agency Sheltering Arms last summer. These stories show the challenges caseworkers face, as well as ways they’ve overcome those challenges.

Reading the stories, what stood out most to me was what a lot of workers try to hide—how human they are.

In one story, the caseworker cries at her desk because parents aren’t showing up for their children, and she feels useless to the families she wants to help. In another, a worker writes about an angry father who reminds him of the love-hate relationship he has with his own stepfather. In both stories, the writers’ willingness to recognize their feelings helps them deal with them, stay on the job, and ultimately connect with parents.

A number of writers also acknowledged that when they first came into the field, they didn’t think they’d be working much with parents. They felt judgmental of parents, or they had never really thought about what parents may have had to overcome. Luckily these workers came to recognize that to help children, they have to help parents, and that parents need their support and guidance in order to understand how to get things right.

Different Systems, Same Challenges

The challenges these staff describe in Rise aren’t unique to any one child welfare system or any one agency.

A 2006 report by Cornerstone for Kids and the Humane Services Workforce Initiative of workers from around the country who had already quit the field of child welfare found that 68% of the workers said they left the job because of “unending work,” which made it hard for them to feel like they had any impact on their cases. As one worker said: “There are too many families to do any good for them.”

Other workers said they felt isolated at their job and that they did not get guidance, assurance or appreciation for the work they did. Many workers reported they got little support or training, and that caseworkers who went above and beyond for families weren’t celebrated, or even thanked. This, too, led workers to leave their jobs.

Across the country an estimated 20 to 40 percent of child welfare caseworkers leave their jobs every year. That’s bad for parents. Getting a new worker breaks the bond of trust that a parent might be gaining. As a parent, I also don’t want to tell a new caseworker my life story again and again. It’s traumatic to keep reliving the events that brought your child into care. Plus, the time it takes for a new worker to get up to date on the case is crucial time wasted.

It’s bad for children, too. A 2005 study from Milwaukee found that children entering foster care who had only one caseworker achieved permanency three quarters of the time, those with two workers achieved permanency in fewer than a fifth of cases, while overwhelmingly, children who had six or seven caseworkers got stuck in foster care for the rest of their childhoods!

A Powerful Role

When I became a parent advocate at a foster care agency, I saw how cases moved forward when parents and workers connected, and how they got stuck when they didn’t.

One caseworker I came to respect was working with a mother who had mental health issues. The mother was totally resistant to doing a mental health evaluation because she felt the agency wanted to categorize her as crazy. The more the worker tried, the more the parent pulled away.

But the worker didn’t give up, offering the parent a choice of facilities where she could do the evaluation, telling the parent over and over that she wasn’t alone and that the worker was there to serve her. Finally, the worker asked me to sit down together with her to help the parent understand that a willingness to address her mental health issues reflected a readiness to care for her children.

Once the mother understood the importance of the evaluation, the worker escorted her to the appointment, showing her, “You don’t have to take this scary step alone.” After that, the parent was calmer and more willing to get things done, and I felt great to be part of a team making a difference, not just saying, “Oh another mental health case.”

In other cases I saw parents doing what they needed to do—all their services, all their drug screens, all their visits—but because the parent and the caseworker had conflicts, caseworkers didn’t really trust the parent or just let their personal feelings cloud their judgment of the good the parent had done.

I also saw that caseworkers face real challenges in their workload. Many times workers have too many responsibilities and too much paperwork for too many families, making it harder for workers to assist any one family. Often it was beyond their control how much time they could spend on an individual family. But it was still so sad to see families’ lives put on hold because of paperwork, and children wait in care because of the time constraints on workers.

Shining a Light on Staff

Reading these Rise stories by frontline staff, I had an even greater appreciation of how hard it is to be a caseworker. Still, it’s not enough to throw up our hands and say, “Oh well, it’s hard for them, too.”

We hope these personal essays—and the reporting that goes with them—help to illuminate how the child welfare systems can better hire, train and support workers to work effectively with parents.

That means making sure that staff understand even before they take the job how important their work with parents really is. It means making sure caseworkers have better training to work with parents, and that child welfare-affected parents have a voice in that training.

We also hope these stories will help show parents the humanity of their workers, so they can work more effectively as a team.

READ THE SERIES:

Transparency and Trust – As a caseplanner, I know I have power over parents’ lives – and I try to share it.

Making a Connection – A moment of understanding changed my relationship with an angry father.

Partners in Planning – When parents are supported to participate in planning, we can make better decisions.

Overwhelmed – High caseloads and paperwork make it hard to invest in human connections.

Meeting Parents Where They Are – Accepting my own feelings helped me accept the parents I work with.

Safe Enough to Grow – Both parents and caseworkers need to feel supported and accepted.