Caseworkers for child welfare agencies across the nation, like New York City’s Administration for Children Services, have one of the hardest and most thankless jobs on the planet: to fight tirelessly to protect the best interest of a child in an abusive family. Despite the laudable goal of their job, words like “caseworker,” “children services,” or “child protection” brings the typical knee jerk reaction that caseworkers are nothing more than “child stealers” or “incompetent fools.” Anyone with even half a brain is quick to jump on the caseworker-bashing bandwagon.
After all, watch any television show, like Law & Order, and anyone playing the role of a caseworker from ACS is portrayed as an incompetent idiot. To be fair, the stereotype is not coming out of left field, particularly when high profile screw-ups, like that of Nixzmary Brown, become national scandal.
Indeed, caseworkers make an easy target, as they are often the most visible representative of a broken child welfare system. But not all blame should rest on the shoulders of caseworkers for the faults of the child welfare system. Many caseworkers are tremendously dedicated. Child welfare agencies, like the Administration for Children’s Services, have made significant improvements in their services.
But to place blame solely on caseworkers would deflect attention on the more systematic issues of the child welfare system as a whole, from the causes of family breakdown and abuse to administrative issues of running a child welfare agency.
In the end, caseworkers are dealing with a very sensitive issue that many parents in our population do not have to deal with: a caseworker with the awesome power of the law coming into their house to investigate claims of abuse and neglect. Add to that a system where caseworkers have an extraordinarily high caseload and high turnover, and you have, amongst other things, a recipe for serious failure. These circumstances place children and families at serious risk and calls into question the very legitimacy of the child welfare system.
Caseworkers need support from the agencies and their city governments that put them out on the front line. Caseworkers are both the strongest and weakest link of a child welfare agency. It thus does not make any sense to provide more resources on a top down basis; resources should be directed from the bottom up.
Support does not stop with a simple “staff appreciation day” or a newsletter about a caseworker’s accomplishments. Support means providing extensive training so that caseworkers are empowered to handle their cases with the professionalism, compassion and perspective required. Support means providing enough resources so that a caseworker can focus wholeheartedly on a fewer amount of cases. Support means providing an environment in which both in theory and in practice prioritizes career longevity and continuity of service as opposed to turnover.
While a higher salary is not the sole answer to retaining staff, it certainly would not hurt. For instance, compare how much money those on the 18th Floor on 150 Williams Street are making compared to the caseworkers. The differences are stark enough to make you question what the real priorities of ACS are. The question must be asked: is ACS providing substantive support to its caseworkers or is it just providing lip service?
The commissioner for the Administration for Children’s Services, John B. Mattingly, has started an active campaign to hire more caseworkers. In theory, this is a good thing, but I hope Mr. Mattingly is not waiting for the magic bullet to solve all problems of staff retention. It’s going to take more than some posters in the subway and an article in the New York Times.
ACS, as with other child welfare agencies, are dealing firsthand with the issue of what happens when you don’t have caseworker retention. In the U.S., the average caseworker lasts less than 2 years. This is simply unacceptable. In such an environment, you have no institutional memory and, most importantly, no continuity of service.
ACS needs talented and dedicated caseworkers who are committed and invested in serving their community for more than a paltry two years. If you or someone you know wants to make a real difference, visit ACS’s joblink here.
Wanted: men and women willing to walk into strange buildings in dangerous neighborhoods, be screamed at by unhinged individuals — perhaps in a language you do not understand — and, on occasion, forcibly remove a child from the custody of a parent because the alternative could have tragic consequences.
It is not the easiest sales pitch in the world, but it is the approach the New York City Administration for Children’s Services is taking in its new recruitment drive, meant to attract workers while informing them of just how difficult the job can be. As in other child welfare agencies across the country, the retention of qualified workers is a perennial problem for children’s services. Currently, the average caseworker stays less than two years, and that includes some five months of training.
The agency is beginning a new advertising campaign on Monday featuring actual workers, similar to a campaign by the New York Police Department. The ads, which will be placed in 500 subway cars and will cost the city about $900,000, are meant to instill a sense of pride among the workers and highlight the qualities the agency believes new recruits must have.
For instance, an ad called “Tough” features a photo of a young female worker and the words:
“Our job is to keep children safe. You have to be able to walk into someone’s home and get them to talk to you. You have to cope with unknown and troubling situations, and figure out the truth. It’s all about making the best decision about how to protect a child. It’s tough — but it’s worth it.”
John B. Mattingly, the children’s services commissioner, said that limiting the number of cases assigned to each worker is the key to effectiveness and retaining workers. In 2006, shortly after the death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown thrust the agency into the limelight, the number of cases soared, with workers handling, on average, 22 cases each. A caseworker, Mr. Mattingly said, should have to handle no more than 12 ongoing investigations. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has committed to hiring enough people to bring the average caseload down, and workers now average 11.5 cases each.
But the nature of the work itself is grueling, and the new recruitment plan contains a more aggressive screening process. “It is work where the decisions you make can have a powerful effect,” said Mr. Mattingly. “We don’t want people to just check off boxes on a form.”
Recruits will be shown a video that highlights the more difficult aspects of the job. The agency, which conducted a study that found successful caseworkers were able to make decisions when confronted with stressful situations, will incorporate those findings into the interview process, the commissioner said. However, no matter how much screening is done, the reality is that it is profoundly difficult to know how a worker will react the first time he or she is asked to go into a strange home uninvited and break up a family.
“We are giving them a very clear picture of what the job is like,” Mr. Mattingly said.
Quoted article was published by the New York Times and can be found here.