Friday, December 17, 2010

Improving the Foster Care System - Part V

This week's post in my ongoing series about improving the foster care system points to one of the biggest shortcomings in the system -- the lack of continuity of care.

Although I'll agree that a certain amount of discontinuity is inevitable, especially when there is no thought given to matching foster children with appropriate homes. In our county, a kid comes into care, and the social worker needs to find a bed. There are too many children and too few beds, so workers traverse a list hoping that a family will say "yes," often without any knowledge of what services a child might need.

That lack of care in placement sets kids up for failure and being bounced from home to home to home.

I think a bigger problem, though, is the lack of continuity when it comes to caseworkers.

From the time our daughter was taken into foster care until she "graduated" and was adopted, we ended up with a total of nine workers involved in the case:
  • On-call worker - This was the worker who happened to be on call when our child was taken into care. Although she was involved in the case only for one night in the very beginning, she periodically paid visits to our home when other workers were busy.

  • Investigative worker - This worker took over the case in the beginning and it was her job to investigate and to make the determination as to whether or not abuse had taken place. She was on the job for perhaps a week or 10 days, and then she passed the case to the next worker in line.

  • Court worker - It was this worker whose job it was to see the case through the court process. It was she, who I dubbed "The Mistress of Unfair Remarks," because she told us that our child was probably mentally retarded and would never learn to read, catch up in school, or amount to anything. This worker was on the case for a month or two.

  • Generic worker #1 - This worker didn't do anything, and was on the case for perhaps a month.

  • Generic worker #2 - This worker had designs on becoming a therapist and soon quit after she learned that she wouldn't be able to get any internship hours until she had been with the county for at least a year. She was on the case for about a month. It was this worker who gave us the "agree to adopt or we'll move the kid, you have 90 days to decide" ultimatum. At this point, our kid had not been in our home even six months.

  • Generic worker #3 - This worker took over for worker #2 after she unexpectedly quit. She was thrilled when we agreed to adopt, but promptly disappeared when she was transferred to another office. We thought she'd started the ball rolling to put us on the adoption track, but found out much later that she'd done nothing of the sort.

  • Nasty Number Seven - This worker took over after after generic worker #3 moved on. This is the worker who was on the case the longest, only because she opted to fight for a removal. Once we found ourselves embroiled in legal action, she couldn't be taken off the case. She stepped in just after our child had been in our home for barely over a year, and stayed on the case until roughly six months before the adoption was finalized.

  • Generic worker #4 - We were told that the case was going to be reassigned, and this worker showed up for a visit. Sadly, we later found out she was filling in for Nasty Number Seven, who was ill.

  • Adoption worker - This worker was the ninth professional to be involved in our case in three years. She had the case for roughly the last six months and was probably the most decent of the workers who were assigned "long-term" to the case.
In our county, the changing of the social workers is a normal and expected activity, which I think is a huge mistake. When a kid is taken, under normal circumstances they will be assigned to three or four workers during their first three months in care. It's also very likely, given that children usually spend the first few weeks in a shelter bed (and sometimes more than one) that they'll go through two to three different beds during that same time period.

Given that most kids don't know whether they are coming or going during that time period, and being taken into foster care is traumatic, does it seem right that kids should find themselves being bounced, not only from bed to bed, but from worker to worker?

I can remember our first foster teen being very upset by the fact that not only did she not know who her worker was, nobody else in the Department seemed to know either.

Why should a kid have to keep track of who is in charge? This is tough enough for a teen, but what about for a younger child who has been ripped from her family and is now staying with strangers?

The logic, at least in our county, is that workers are trained for different specialties. The investigative workers investigate, the court workers fill out court petitions and testify, and the generic workers handle the day-to-day business once a child has been taken for the foreseeable future. The problem is, the kid is left with nobody to hold their hand through the process, and as workers change, nobody knows who is in charge.

It seems to me that kids should get one worker, who is in charge of the case from day one. If the worker needs help investigating, she should call on an investigator. If she needs help with the court process, there should be a specialist available to act as a resource. However, the kids need to have a steady face in what is a very unsteady and upsetting process.

Granted, assigning a single worker won't completely eliminate the problem of worker turnover, since people will still be reassigned or quit. However, I think it would go a long way to reduce the problem. Certainly I think nine workers in three years is eight workers too many. For our daughter, all it did was to convince her that workers weren't going to be around long enough to really help her, and even if they were, they certainly couldn't be trusted.


  1. That happens here too. After the initial pickup, it can be several weeks before the case gets staffed. During that time, the kid wants information that I can't provide because I don't know it yet. And the parent doesn't know what's going on during this time either as no case worker means no case plan to begin working on.

    Then once a worker is assigned, they can be changed for stupid reasons. Like their case load is 20 but someone else has only 18, so the foster kid gets switched over to the other case worker. That's usually the 3rd worker she's had to get to know already, plus a GAL, a Judge, a transportation worker or five, a therapist, etc.

    Each new case worker sometimes changes the case plan or has an opinion about the child or the family and therefore the whole feel of the case changes. Maybe one worker has experience in dealing with RAD kids but this new worker is naive and because of this, she believes lies to the point of moving the child to yet another foster home.

    In regards to matching kids with foster families, here there is a list too, but the placement worker has personal preferences. Children without issues, especially newborns, go to "preferred" foster families (white, married, christian, etc). Children with issues, or older kids, go to non-preferred foster homes (single, non religious, larger families, etc). All of this is based on the placement workers (and their supervisors) personal opinions, not on strengths, abilities, and experience shown by the foster parents.

  2. ***seems to me that kids should get one worker, who is in charge of the case from day one. If the worker needs help investigating, she should call on an investigator. If she needs help with the court process, there should be a specialist available to act as a resource. However, the kids need to have a steady face in what is a very unsteady and upsetting process.***

    Are you aware of CASA? Court Appointed Special Advocates?

    I am a CASA. We are volunteers who do just what your post described. We don't work for the state, we don't get paid at all, but we ARE part of the "team" that includes DHS, Foster Care Workers, GAL's, etc. We generally see the kids much more often than any of the otjhers do, & our relationship with the children is much different.

    Some of the unique characteristics of a CASA are that we are assigned a FAMILY - one CASA who is there for the bio parent, foster parents, & all of the siblings; we are assigned to the case until the END (meaning, until permanency is achieved, however that may be); we write court reports like all team members do, but ours are unique as they are very detailed; we get to REALLY know the kids, & we are their "voice" in court (many times, kids would REALLY like to say something, but don't know who to say it to, or how to say it, & we help them). We are what our title says we are: ADVOCATES.

    I believe you spoke about the lack of shared information in one of your posts. A CASA would recognize this, & be a big help in this area because we go where the child goes - until the case is over. You would not see the "blame the foster parent" scenario you have seen before where a child is transferred from one home because of behavior problems be moved into another home & the new home not be told - because CASA knows & CASA follows the child to their new placement (even if its a residential facility).

    MANY of the issues you have spoken about in your Blog concerning thwe broken system are helped GREATLY with the addition of a CASA.

    I tecently heard a great example of 4 siblings removed from their adoptive home after abuse was proven. A tragedy took their adoptive mother from them so they all became wards of the state. They were in care before the tragedy, but therapists kept focusing on the tragedy of losing their mom as being the reason for 2 of the kids' bad behavuor when the reality is, the behaviors were there before they were removed from their adoptive mom due to abuse. In fact, a lot of the reason the adoptive mom began abusing the kids is because the behaviors were so difficult for her to manage & no matter where she turned for help, she was turned down. That does not excuse her harming them, but therein lies the problem in this case.

    After the tragedy, 2 of the children (worst behavior problems) have been moved from facility to facility, foster home to foster home. CASA was assigned AFTER the tragedy that took mom away, but once we came on board, & we began speaking with mom's friends & family members, the facilities, therapists, teachers, foster parents & the kids, we realized the behavior problems in the 2 just kept getting worse.

    We then noticed that all therapy they were getting revolved around their LATEST trauma (the loss of their mom). NO therapist picked up on the fact that these behaviors were evident at LEAST 2 years prior to that tragedy, & in fact, were the same problems mom was having with them.

    The therapists were notified, treatments changed gears, & the kids are FINALLY improving.

    If your county has a CASA program, suggest that it be utilized. A judge must order that a CASA be assignd, & some DHS agencies don't like to work with CASA, but if a judge orsers it, CASA makes a huge difference in most cases.


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