Friday, February 11, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part XIII

This week's installment on improving the foster care system focuses on an area that I haven't spoken much about in my previous posts.  Much of what I've discussed in earlier Improving the Foster Care System posts has covered allocation of resources and money for foster children and the families who care for them.

In this week's post, I'm going to discuss social workers.

I've received a lot of irritated responses to some of my previous posts (both on this blog and my old one) from social workers who have complained that I'm not exactly being fair in my assessment of them as a group.  So, before I go any further, I'm going to say that perhaps there are social workers who are well-trained, take their jobs seriously, and aren't simply in the business of snatching children. My comments here are reflective of the situation in my state and county, which may not be representative of our nation as a whole.

With that said, social workers need to be better trained.

In our state, so-called "social workers" who are employed by the state's child welfare system are not necessarily folks who possess an LCSW license or a Master's Degree in Social Work.  In our county, the minimum requirement is that workers have a Bachelor's degree.  Although it's preferred if these degree-holders have studied psychology or human services, the reality is that the Department does not care.  If you are a warm body with a degree in advanced basket weaving, they will take you, especially if you are bilingual.  The population of "real" social workers with licenses is far and away the minority of caseworkers.

The majority of the workers we had were perhaps well-meaning, but completely untrained.  Many of them were inexperienced and had only been on the job a few weeks or months before taking over our daughter's case.  They didn't know how to get things done, they didn't know how to follow procedures, and they often said or did things they shouldn't have said or done.  Many of these workers quickly found themselves unprepared or frustrated by the job and its accompanying low pay, and they quit.

During the roughly three and a half years Danielle was in foster care, she had a total of nine workers. The first four were temporary workers assigned to her case as it weaved its way through the initial removal, investigation, and legal processes.  The remaining five were assigned during the remainder of her stay in foster care and her subsequent adoption.

Out of that total, only one that we know of had a Master's in Social Work.  She was the best of the bunch, but unfortunately she didn't stay on our case very long because it was transferred to other workers.  The worst of the bunch, Nasty Number Seven, also had a Master's in something, though we never learned what her area of study was.

Clearly, a high level of college education does not a good social worker make.

We also had at least four workers engage in conduct that was, in our opinion, unconscionable.  One worker completely wrote off our daughter and wanted to move her strictly for racist reasons.  Another routinely missed appointments and completely lost another foster child's belongings. A third threatened to remove Danielle from our home if we didn't agree to adopt her, even though that decision wasn't yet ripe to be made.  The last of this bunch lied in court, misrepresented facts in her reports, and went out of her way to make our lives as miserable as she could for an entire year while our lawyer duked it out in court.

So how do we avoid these problems?

Social workers should be adequately trained.  They should be expected to take courses in ethics, tolerance, customer service, as well as their own internal policies and procedures.  They need to learn that lying and manipulating is unacceptable behavior, to be tolerant of other religions, cultures, races and sexual orientations.  They need to learn that people's schedules are important, and arriving two hours late (or not at all) to a scheduled appointment isn't reasonable.

In addition to training, managers need to pay attention to their workers' behavior.  If a worker is caught misrepresenting facts on a report or lying in front of a judge, she should be fired.  If a manager receives too many complaints about a worker being intolerant, rude, or frequently late, that worker should find herself on the receiving end of a reprimand.  Lousy, lazy, incompetent or ineffective workers should be culled.

But of course the ubiquitous "they" can't do that.  The working conditions are so lousy and the turnover so high that it is almost impossible to recruit good people.  People with excellent skills and high self-confidence don't stick around.  Those that remain are often the workers with weaker skills or insufficient motivation or self-confidence to look for a better job.

Another problem is that the few workers who have their Master's in Social Work don't usually stick  around very long.  They know that the job stinks, the pay is low, and they are only there to work the internship hours required for state licensure.  As soon as  they have their required number of hours, they move on to greener pastures.

Once again, this is largely a problem that can be solved by money.  If the state spent the money to train and pay social workers decently, we wouldn't have these problems.  But again, like so many other problems in the foster care system, nobody wants to pay what it costs to make the system right.


  1. Although we have worked with several good and a couple of outstanding worker in our nine years, by far the majority falls into the category of unskilled, untrained, uncaring and/or unfamiliar with the truth.

  2. Social workers are bullies. Mine got off on the power trip. She was quickly put in her place, but oh she tried.


  3. I've been on both sides of the fence - as a foster parent for 18 years with good and horrible workers, adoptive parent of 6 from foster care and several stints as a caseworker and one as a casework supervisor. I think most of what you said is right on. There does need to be more training, but there also needs to be more support and lower caseloads. caseworkers burn out... they get crap from everyone all day. Judges are demanding, state's attorneys have their own issues and agendas they put on workers, policies are often absurd and don't reflect reality so they have to do things that make no sense or are busywork, parents are often hateful, kids are often in crisis and finally, foster parents can be royal PITA's (not you, i'm sure! :) ). They usually have way more cases than they can adequately service due to funding issues and high turnover. They start out idealistic and well meaning, hoping to save children and re-build families, but the reality is that theses families are badly broken. A success story is "barely good enough" parenting and there are way too many more unsucessful stories. Its hard to feel like you ever make a difference and that's what people go into this field wanting to do. You lose sleep at night worrying if you are making the right decisions about kids because the reality is that you can't make the decisions you want to make - the system is crazy and broken. Believe me, as a foster/adoptive parent, I have had plenty of caseworkers that had no business being caseworkers. I've had one that I had to go to the head of the state's dcfs to battle. But I try to cut them a little slack knowing that its a crappy job and they pretty much get shit on all day. the one thing I would recommend in changing the system is more oversight of workers. I think there should be a way for foster parents to let an impartial 3rd party know if a worker is doing something wrong and that person could investigate. We do have a foster parent hotline here in Illinois that you can call and they will try to help, but they don't have any power (they are just mediators). Someone needs to be able to step in and tell that worker to make changes. Supervisors often don't do it because of the turnover... it is better to have a worker who does her job half-ass than to find to find and retrain a new one. When that worker quits or is fired, the supervisor often has to take over her cases for a while until a new one comes on - no supervisor wants to do that if they can avoid it. So they do put up with too much incompetence.
    I really enjoy your blog - you have a lot of good ideas and bring up a lot of topics we need to be talking about as a society!

  4. I completely aqree with you. I was raised in the foster care system and saw social workers come and go. There were things that happened to me in foster care that could have been avoided with better training and attentiveness to the children. I am studying now to become a social worker, and I completely agree that they are not only undertrained.


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