In Focus: For Overwhelmed Caseworkers, Protecting Kids Can Be a Struggle

Edgar

Edgar said one caseworker took weeks to respond. (Photo courtesy of Laurence Borten)

When Steffanie’s foster father demanded a kiss, she pushed him away, she said. But as a 15-year-old living in his home, she said she couldn’t fend him off for long, and a week later he began to rape her daily.
She said she complained to her caseworker about the home in the past, and afterward her foster mother “berated her,” forced her to clean the bathroom with pure bleach, and told her she wasn’t allowed to talk to the caseworker alone.

“He always said, ‘Hey, how are you?’ I would say, ‘Fine,’ and he would never go deeper, or say, ‘Let me investigate more. How is school? How is home?’” Steffanie said of her caseworker. “He would visit and I would think, please just say, ‘Come talk with me. Just make me talk to you.’ If somebody would have asked me, and told me that they cared about my well-being, I would have spoken up.”

Steffanie said her caseworker never picked up on how depressed she was. “Maybe he wasn’t trained well,” she told Children’s Rights. “If he would have noticed that I was completely shut down, I would have never been abused in so many ways.”

Steffanie, of California, is one of the nearly 640,000 young people who depend on caseworkers to keep them safe in U.S. foster care each year. The workers, in turn, rely on government agencies for the support necessary to protect kids, but their needs are not always prioritized. They often start with little training, then struggle with unmanageable caseloads and long hours on small salaries.

“It is unconscionable that some foster care systems fail to give workers the training and resources they need, and then burden them with the tremendous responsibility of ensuring scores of kids are safe. It makes an already-stressful job nearly impossible to do well,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “Caseworkers deserve the resources to help the children who need them.”

THE IMPACT

“It’s a very heavy field,” an Illinois caseworker, who works with kids with extreme medical, developmental, behavioral or mental health issues, said in an interview with CR. “Most people don’t deal, every day, with children who have experienced sexual and physical abuse.”

A Colorado caseworker told CR, “You are managing a million things on a whole bunch of cases … It is just really easy with a lot of factors to get overloaded. And not getting a lot of support can get overwhelming.” She said some workers “are doing visits at eight at night, because they have so many cases. Where is the time to recoup and regenerate?”

The effects of all this pressure can be devastating. It can lead to high turnover rates — meaning kids get bounced between workers too frequently. And often when workers are spread too thin, they fail to link kids with permanent families, children are not visited, they are put in inappropriate homes and the risk of abuse and neglect increases.

“My first foster family seemed to be sent from heaven, until my social worker visits became less frequent,” said Shandreka, who grew up in care in New York. “The family abused me mentally and physically and neglected even my basic needs — like ensuring I bathed properly.”

THE KIDS

Young people can tell the difference between an overworked, poorly trained caseworker, and someone who is adequately supported by a child welfare system.

“I think everyone goes into it caring,” said Edgar, who spent time in foster care in Georgia. He said he had one caseworker who would take two weeks to get back to him when he wanted to set up medical appointments and would speak on the phone with other people when she was with him. “I can only imagine having to deal with 40 kids. I don’t think it was the caseworker’s fault.”

Steffanie was abused in foster care, but eventually found a loving family, thanks to the help of her caseworker. She is pictured above with her mom, Ellen.

Steffanie was abused in foster care, but eventually found a loving family, thanks to the help of her caseworker. She is pictured above with her mom, Ellen.

Ollie, who spent time in Nevada foster care, credits her “soccer team” of caseworkers for helping her graduate high school. Her team included her state caseworker and others who focused on improving her social skills and preparing her for life after foster care. “They saw my promise and worked hard to make sure that I took advantage of every opportunity that was available to me,” Ollie said. They ensured she stayed in the same school for three years, despite moving between homes, and when she was falling behind, held weekly meetings with her teachers. When Ollie graduated, most of them attended.

Steffanie, the young woman who suffered horrendous abuse at the hands of her former foster father, was eventually moved to a new home and got a new caseworker who, she said, “cared about everything.” The worker made sure Steffanie talked to her about what was going on in her life, attended her track meets, got excited when she earned good grades, and pushed her to go to college. She also encouraged Steffanie to move in with a family that now feels like home. “I guess they call them forever families, but they are just my family, period,” Steffanie told CR.

Now she is in college, studying to be a caseworker herself. “I totally understand where these kids are coming from. I want to do whatever I can to inspire them and make them happy,” she said.

THE FIGHT

Children’s Rights wants Steffanie — and other current and future caseworkers — to succeed.
But as the caseworker in Colorado told CR: “It is not any easy job. If you want us to do the work, you have to give us the tools.”

Through comprehensive reform campaigns, CR is pushing states to provide caseworkers with an essential foundation of robust training programs, manageable caseloads, well-functioning computer systems and resources to help kids and families.

The organization’s advocacy has already lowered caseloads in states like Connecticut and Wisconsin, and ensured that almost all children in metropolitan Atlanta have monthly visits with their caseworkers. Michigan has created a training program in partnership with the state’s schools of social work. And in New Jersey, officials have implemented a computer system that gives workers the ability to better track cases.

Children’s Rights is now fighting to compel Massachusetts and Texas to make similar — and much needed — reforms. According to a CR report, Massachusetts caseworkers are failing to make more than a quarter of visits to children that are required under federal law and the state’s own policies.

The situation in Texas is just as bleak. Only about 81 percent of required monthly in-home caseworker visits occur. The state has a tremendous rate of caseworker turnover — averaging 34 percent per year, and caseloads are above national professional standards and the state’s own benchmarks. Despite these conditions, caseworkers have just 18 months to reunify kids with their birth families or find them adoptive homes before kids enter long-term foster care with little hope for stable families.

“Caseworkers are, in effect, these children’s fire alarms,” Senior U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack wrote in her ruling stating that CR’s legal campaign on behalf of 12,000 children in long-term foster care in Texas could proceed as a class action. “They are the first and best mechanism to ensure… that the child is not suffering any harm or abuses. A caseworker who is so overburdened that she cannot visit the children she is responsible for to keep apprised of their well-being, or if she cannot build enough of a rapport to do so effectively, cannot fulfill this function.”

Child welfare systems must operate with this principle as part of their foundations.

THE RESULTS: CR Advocacy Leads to Caseworker Supports

  • A decade ago, caseworkers in metropolitan Atlanta regularly went six months or more without visiting some children. By 2013, workers were able to visit foster children twice per month in 98 percent of cases.
  • Caseloads in Milwaukee plummeted from an average of 100 children per worker in 1993 to just 15.7 in 2011.
  • In 1999, New Jersey failed to adequately train new caseworkers before assigning them to complex cases, and training manuals were not readily available. The state has since created a child welfare training academy to ensure staff are taught the skills needed to protect children.

Read additional articles in Notes from the Field, the Children’s Rights Newsletter:
www.childrensrights.org/publications-multimedia/newsletter/