If you’re a foster parent at one time or another I know you have been frustrated with a case manager. Speaking as a case manager, I get it. I get frustrated with myself, and with other case managers! The child welfare system in our country is often under funded and over worked, creating a huge turn over rate and a serious problem with post secondary stress. It often creates an atmosphere of defeat, where there is often way too much to do to ever feel successful at your job, and even when you are successful, no one seems to acknowledge it or care. If one isn’t careful, it becomes very easy to become callous towards the work and to move through your job forgetting the urgency and importance of what you are doing. You think, “I can’t get to everything, and I will never be successful, so whats the point?”
But there are several things YOU as a foster parent can do to make the case worker handling the child on your case more effective. Even though a couple of these may seem trivial, trust me, they will go a LONG way.
- Tell them that you care about them and appreciate them. Ask them how they are doing! You would be surprised how little they hear that very simple question in a day. As a social worker, your job is to continuously meet the needs of others and respond to their concerns. On top of that, if you are a social worker who is also a wife and mom, you come home after work to even more people that are expecting you to meet their needs. If you actually take the time to inquire about their life and also be interested in hearing their response, you can gain rapport and understanding. EVERY TIME a foster parent does this, a case manager will come by my office to let me know how much it meant to them, and they go out of their way to pass along a complement about the foster parent.
- Communicate early, communicate well. For a case manager, how they spend their time often has to be carefully mapped out. There are also often emergencies that shift all of their priorities and plans for the day, causing more work for them later in the month. If you need a travel letter for vacation, or if you are starting to notice a problem with the child in your home or with their case, speak up soon. This gives the case manager time to find a way to plan to address it. If you don’t let them know you have a need or problem before it is an emergency, they just aren’t going to be able to help you in an effective way. Makes sense right? The second component of this is communicating well. Be clear about what the problem is, how often it is happening, and exactly what you think you need to address it. One thing I actually encourage foster parents to do is to write up a weekly summary of how the child did in your home and send it to both the supervisor and the case manager. Even if nothing negative is happening, you never know when an activity or behavior may become significant. You can write about what extra-curricular activities they are involved in, how their visits went, what they have been disciplined for, etc. This will create a picture over time of how the child progresses.
- Partner with birth/first parents. A case manager will always try to motivate birth (or first) parents to work their case plan and to take the necessary steps to reunify with their children, but they can’t teach them everything. They can’t be there 24/7. By partnering with the birth parent, compromising with them, and mentoring them, you’re engaging them more often and making it more likely that they will work their case. If you are unnecessarily difficult, ungracious or unyielding in your interactions, you are creating one more excuse for the birth parent and one more barrier for them not to work their case plan. They will spend all of their time they have with the case manager complaining about you and worrying about their children, instead of taking responsibility and focusing on their own action steps. Instead of an actual case manager, the worker becomes a constant mediator between the foster family and the birth family. Where you can and when possible, make accommodations. Don’t let your negative attitude be the reason the case can’t move forward.
- When you do have to call supervisors or other leadership, don’t be hostile. In the world of child welfare there is a constant fear of being blamed. When things don’t get done or they aren’t done the right way, people get upset and often lash out at case managers. As a case manager, its hard to not constantly look over your shoulder and be anxious about how cases will turn out and wonder if you are doing everything right. After all, people’s lives and futures are at stake! When things don’t go well, it is hard not to internalize that blame and guilt. Inevitably there will come a time for you as the foster parent when the case manager does not respond to you. Whether it is out of busyness or forgetfulness, it will happen. When this does happen, call the supervisors, administrators, whoever is up the chain of command that can pay attention to your needs and give you the answers you are looking for. But please don’t be negative. If there is an action you disagree with, try to understand it first. You can let the supervisor know that you had a hard time getting into contact with the case manager without complaining about them. If you do complain, it only contributes to the culture of blame and shame within the system. You can let that supervisor know there have been issues while still expressing your appreciation for the case worker and your empathy for the fact that they have an overwhelming job. In this way you have expressed your concerns and needs, without burning your bridge with the case worker or creating an adversarial relationship.
- While your needs are important, remember that you are one of many. I never want to justify poor case work or negligence. That is not my intent with this point. But as a case worker you ask yourself: what demands your immediate attention, the foster parent who contacted you about approval for soccer reimbursement, or the suicidal teen who was just disrupted from his group home? In simple requests it is all about your attitude. Sometimes I see foster parents get angry and worked up over not getting answers to simple requests. What they don’t realize is that the case managers can’t even afford to address your need when they are facing massive issues with other children. You can yell, scream, email, call all you want but for them it won’t change the fact that they have to make sure this other child’s needs are met. Part of being a good case manager is knowing how to prioritize your tasks, and when you do need time in the office to take care of paperwork or other simple/small requests, asking your supervisor and coworkers for protected time so that you can make that happen. For you as the foster parent, look at your request or need and consider how urgent it is. Ask yourself, is this a safety issue? How long can this need go unaddressed safely? Send reminder emails and call up the chain as I said above. Ask the case manager when they will have time at the office and schedule a meeting on that day. But just know that pressuring the system through anger and emotion over more trivial requests is not going to get you the results you desire.
All in all, what I’m saying is being a kind decent human being can actually get you very far in helping your case manager to be effective. Furthermore, they are actually going to look forward to talking with you and seeing you, because you are one of the few people that does not make their life difficult. And don’t worry, as someone who advocates for foster parents often, I have more blog posts coming to address the case workers 😉
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