Caseworkers for ACS: One of the hardest jobs on the planet

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. images1.jpgDespite 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.


8 thoughts on “Caseworkers for ACS: One of the hardest jobs on the planet

  1. In recent years, there have been numerous stories in newspapers around the world about the failures of the departments of Family Services and Social Services to do their respective jobs of monitoring and assisting children in dangerous situations. Do we ever read about a child murdered by a family that the Department of Children & Families or the Sheriff’s Office has not already investigated, usually more than once? What will it take to protect these innocent children?
    These stories are a step in the right direction, but one wonders if perhaps they came too late. All the outrage in the world can’t resurrect a dead child.
    Too many children have died as a result of wrong decisions by CPS. With power comes responsibility and accountability, which most officials ignore. A child welfare system so overwhelmed with children who don’t need to be in foster care,the less time they have to find children in real danger.

    Let’s NOT allow these precious children’s death to be in vain – in the news one day, forgotten the next. Children Who Didn’t Have to Die – Website

  2. I just applied today. I am overqualified for this job, which I hope doesn’t hurt me, but if I get a decent response out of my application in a timely matter I will accept it. We’ll see how it goes.

  3. I just got a screen application yesterday. I so want to help these children god willing he gives me the strength to get this job.

  4. For those people who have applied, have you been offered the position yet? I went for a screening this week along with a urine test and they told me they will call us back when a position opens up. But I was under the impression that the ACS desperately needed staff. If the wait is long, it is no wonder the ACS has a retention problem. The longer it takes for an organization to call back potential candidates, the higher the chance there won’t any good candidates left.

  5. I heard negative and positive attitudes about CPS workers. I have a close friend who works for the agency and acknowledges that it is a tough and demanding job yet rewarding. I got a screening next week. I am a new graduate, eager to make a difference in these children’s lives.

  6. Hi
    I am a recent grad and have a interview with acs next week, can anyone tell me what tomexpect. I was told to plan ahead because the interview process may take up to six hours is this so?


  7. this job sucks, when i say job i do mean job. it is not i repeat not a career unless you love depression and a host of other mental and physical plaques. proceed with caution when entering the application process and careful what you hear, there is a reason, hello there is a reason why work retention is so poor

  8. I had an interview with ACS a few weeks ago…Does anyone know how long it takes to be contacted for the protective specialists position?….weeks…months…or mabey even over a year?….

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