This post has been rolling around in my mind ever since I started working in child welfare. Over the course of almost 5 years, I have watched workers come and go, staying in their jobs on average about 6-9 months. In my experience, if anyone can make it past the role of supervisor, or be fortunate enough to fill a supervisory role that has ample support, they tend to stay and make their career in child welfare. But it is very rare for anyone to fill the role of case manager for longer than a year. This baffles many foster parents and other community/agency partners, and so I hope to shed a little light on it here.
- There aren’t enough case workers. There is a vicious cycle that occurs in child welfare offices typically. It starts with not having enough funding. So the result is that positions are cut or never existed in the first place. This leads to very high case loads. High case load leads to quick burn out. Once one worker quits, their high case load gets distributed to everyone who is left, which leads to those workers also quitting soon thereafter if there is no relief in sight. Why are high case loads a huge problem? Well that takes me to my second point…
- Case loads involve people, and people have needs 24/7, not only 8-5. This is especially true for foster care case loads. At the end of the day, the state is the legal guardian of the children in foster care, and we have to answer to the court (about) every 3 months as to the child’s well being and if their needs are getting met. We have to ensure that all of the provisions in the court order are met. This means that if the child has a visit and we can’t find a transporter, we HAVE to take them. If they are in between placements and we can’t get a hotel, we HAVE to stay with them. If they need to get any kind of medical appointment or assessment done and their foster parent won’t take them, its OUR JOB to make sure they get there. If we have a day off but court happens to be moved to that day, we may HAVE to testify. Do you see why it is so hard to set limits and boundaries with this job? When no one else steps up to the plate for the kids on our case loads we are at the end of the line. This isn’t like other jobs where we can choose to ignore issues until 8AM the next morning. We HAVE to take care of these children when no one else will. Just today we had a foster parent get into a HUGE conflict with her high needs middle schooler. Everyone got so dysregulated and the child got so out of control that the foster parent ended up driving her to the office at 4:45 in the afternoon saying that she needed respite desperately if her family was going to make it this week. The case manager, out of compassion, obliged. This case manager then coordinated with me to find a respite home for the night, and drove her there. She probably did not get home until 7:30.
- As a woman, it is very hard to start a family and have a career in child welfare. Not impossible. Just hard. This situation I mentioned above is a prime example. What I have seen is that child welfare case management is one of the only (semi) well paying jobs that a psychology grad can get without going to grad school. Fresh-out-of-school 22 year olds come into the work, with little to no experience in the field. They get a crash course. While many burn out, some truly enjoy it. The problem is that when it is time to have children, staying in the role of case manager can be unfeasible unless you have a rock-solid support system. I often joke that social workers need care teams just as foster parents do. When you have your own child you can’t afford to stay late. Daycare closes at 6. Your babies need you home to meet their needs. The freedom to work 60 hours is no longer there, and so I have seen many women forced out of this field as a result. Most districts do have either designated after hours teams or on call workers, but you have to remember that for children in foster care being continually passed off to strangers can either be terrifying or even worse, desensitizing. It’s important for children with broken attachment styles to build bonds with the same people.
- Child Welfare is not valued by our society. As people chant and march for police reform I feel like I’m growing hoarse from screaming at the top of my lungs: “WE NEED CHILD WELFARE REFORM!” People are not widely aware of the fact that it is predominantly childhood trauma that causes adults to take on maladaptive coping skills like stealing, lying, abusing substances, and joining criminal organizations to feel a sense of belonging. Do you want to reduce crime and minimize police interactions? Fund and reform the child welfare system. Broken and hurting children, if never helped, grow up to be broken and hurting adults. Many children who age out of foster care continue cycles of abuse and neglect on their own children, because they never got the healing they needed from a relationship with a consistent, nurturing caregiver. Let me ask you, when is the last time you heard any politician talk about foster care? We need real leaders who will champion the well-being of the most silent and marginalized in our communities.
- The pay is…well…abysmal. Base level pay for a case worker in the state of Georgia is $35,000 a year. After 2 years of experience, you can make it to $38,000, and after 5 years of experience, you can make it to $42,000. I know other states are doing better than this, but lets be real: no matter how much you love the work and love kids, at some point, its not enough. Especially when there are no opportunities for raises, even though your value as an employee increases every year you are on the job. The more experience you gain, the more trainings you participate in to hone your skills and broaden your resume, your value increases. Why would I stay in a role with a child welfare agency when I could be making twice my salary with a private agency or non-profit? Or at least 20% more? At some point, the finances just don’t make sense. And in the same way that “love” isn’t the cure all for foster parents, “passion” cannot be the cure all for social workers.
- It is a thankless job. When I say thankless…I’m not over exaggerating. Especially when case loads are high, case workers are perpetually disappointing people. If you are a foster parent, you have probably experienced this. When you email case workers, and you don’t hear back for a week, or they drop the ball on something for the kiddo in your home, its very easy just to let out your frustration on them. Before you do, just remember that everyone else is probably doing it too. They disappoint the judge because they didn’t perfectly execute the case plan or provide services, they disappoint the birth parents because they are constantly blamed for the removal of the children and every hiccup in the case, they disappoint their supervisors when they go to staffings and they haven’t even completed their tasks from last month’s staffings, etc. The disappointment seems to be endless. Even worse, they have to make the tough decisions for children they are serving on their case load, and the kids themselves often hate them for that too. Your first time getting cussed out is laughed off as an initiation into the work. Let that sink in. Not many personality types can sustain themselves in this type of work for very long, and for good reason. If social workers are seen by any therapist worth their salt, they will often hear, “Maybe you need to think about finding a different job…”
- Leadership detached from the work, or that do not understand trauma informed care. I have to say Georgia is improving in this area everyday. I feel that we finally do have leadership that prioritizes listening and learning from case managers. But for so many states and for us a few years ago, I often felt like we had people making policy decisions that only made our lives on the ground harder. There was no emphasis or priority on the well being of case managers, only meeting quotas and making sure our numbers were on point every month. Furthermore, policies were being put in place that were the opposite of trauma-informed. They didn’t prioritize attachment, felt-safety, or regulation. Case managers weren’t even trained on what trauma informed practice was and so there was no way to implement it. Thankfully, that is slowly starting to change as we implement TBRI statewide. However, I know there are many states and localities that are not so fortunate. As with any organization, when leadership does not listen to subordinates, there will always be unrest, turnover, toxic culture, and inefficiency.
Now if you are reading this as someone who might be interested in working in this field in future, my goal is not to discourage you. It may take some trial and error of finding the right role, but don’t grow weary. What I can say is that despite all of these things above, every day I have been in child welfare has been completely and totally worth it. It is a true gift to come to work and know that what you are doing is literally breaking cycles of abuse and neglect and potentially having a positive impact in the lives of families for generations. Even if no one else does, I know the work I am doing is important. I know the Lord has promised to take care of me and take care of the oppressed on this earth, so I go to work everyday with faith that He will hold true. When you work in this field, it is almost impossible to get caught up in petty drama like your other friends do at the office. It teaches you not to sweat the little stuff and be thankful for every day and every moment. When you meet children that have survived horrors and you assist foster parents heal children from those horrors, it changes you.
If you are reading this as a foster parent or as anyone involved in “the system” in some other tertiary way, I hope it sheds light for you on the battles your local child welfare office is fighting. 9 times out of 10 it is not that a case worker is lazy, that they don’t care, or that they are even bad at their job. Its just that their case load is so high and the need is so great that it is often physically impossible for them to do “a good job.” We have to change the entire definition of that phrase in our work. Good days are rare. Have you ever been so exhausted from meeting so many other people’s needs that you just get to a place where you can’t care anymore? Thats where many of them are. Have compassion. If you notice that dead stare and monotone voice, remind them that you appreciate them.
And finally, write your representatives! Email them, call them, and visit them! Make these issues known on a state and local level. Our local representatives in state legislatures are the ones who have the real power to change the system. Draw the correlation for them between child welfare, substance abuse and crime. Crime is often the fruit, childhood trauma is the root.