(Big thanks to Motherissues, Foster Ima, Yondalla, Tubaville, and Annieology for sparking this blog post!)
I am not sure that any person in the child welfare world sparks more anxiety than the caseworker. Often seen as the "baby snatcher", "decision maker", and "tattle tale". Occasionally referred to as a "godsend", "secondary parent" or "that person I for whom clean the house". Either way, I find that most people have a strong opinion about caseworkers.
I'm not going to speak much about the quality of caseworkers in this post, the reality is that caseworkers run the gamut of "absolutely fantastic" to "incompetent fool" as much as in any other profession. I'm going to focus on their job responsibilities. I can only speak to how things run in my state - but I hope that others will comment below or link to their own blog posts to talk about how it runs in their state!
The current official title for caseworkers in my state is "Permanency Specialists" - but no one calls them that, not even the caseworkers themselves. At my agency we generally call them "Child Welfare Specialists" or CWS for short. But in casual conversation, they are mostly just referred to as the "caseworker" or simply "the worker".
Caseworkers in my state must have a Bachelor's degree - but it doesn't have to be a bachelor's of social work. It doesn't even have to be a bachelors in a related field actually. There is some regulation about how what percentage of workers in a given agency have a non-related degree, but the truth is that no one is looking too closely at that standard. I am glad that I wasn't a caseworker at that stage in my life. There has been a big push in recent years to increase the number of caseworkers with their Masters Degree - especially their Masters in Social Work (MSW). I was hired two weeks before completing my MSW degree. I still wasn't really that prepared to be a caseworker. In my personal opinion, caseworkers should be some of the highest educated, highest trained, highest paid people in the social service field. But it is generally just the opposite. So, the next time that you get all riled up that your caseworker doesn't have all the answers - ask yourself if you had them all when you were 23 and fresh out of college!
Average caseworker salary:
Private Agency: 25 - 31K (Bachelor's); 29-37K (Master's)
State Agency: 30-35K (Bachelor's); 35-42K (Master's)
Generally decent medical/dental/vision insurance
Generally 3-5 weeks paid vacation (makes up for the 50+ hr work weeks)
Flexible schedule (also means that the worker must be flexible - nights and weekends are required!)
Flex-time (rarely ever gets taken!)
My state has a policy called "One Family, One Worker". This policy refers to the biological family and means that every effort should be made to have a sole caseworker following the entire family once they have come to the attention of the department. This worker is known as the "Family Caseworker".
The only time there is another worker is when one child in a sibling group must be overseen by another agency for some exceptional reason - usually in the case of a child having special needs. Usually the "spec" agency worker will just take over the entire family case, but occasionally it is determined to be in the best interests of the family case to stay with the original agency. In that case, there will be a "Child Caseworker" that oversees the services for just the particular child on their caseload. The Child Caseworker reports to the Family Caseworker.
According to state regulations, caseworkers are supposed to only carry up to 15 cases - but there is a catch. It is not specified in our policy if that is "families" or "children". So, if one family has five children - its left up to the agency to decide if they want to quantify that as "one case" or "five cases". My agency solves this dilemma by generally counting each child as a separate case - but making allowance for going over the "15 case" rule if there are multiple children in one foster home or if they are all returned home. Children who are specialized count as two cases generally. So, most of my agency's caseworkers have between 10-20 "cases". (I'll talk more about cases in general in another CWW post)
The Family Caseworker is responsible putting ALL services in place - for the biological parents and any children in state custody. This includes but is not limited to:
1. Assessing the parents for services needed to correct the conditions which brought their children into foster care.
2. Developing a "Service Plan" - the written document, submitted to the court, that details exactly what is expected of each person involved with the family.
3. Locate and refer parents to all services required to have their children returned to their care.
4. Have regular contact with all service providers, obtain quarterly reports from service providers, and submit those reports at each court date.
5. Assess the children for any services necessary to facilitate physical and emotional well being.
6. Locate and refer children to all services recommended by the worker or other service providers - keep contact and obtain reports for court.
7. Set up visitation between parents and their children in foster care.
8. Have regular contact with the foster family - make referrals for any services needed to provide stable placement for the children in their care. (Therapy, respite, daycare)
9. Address and remove any barriers to any person engaging in the recommended services.
The number one big responsibility for caseworkers in my state is Homevisits - "in person, in home contacts" if you want to get technical about it. Caseworkers are required to visit with the biological parents, in their home, once per month as long as the case goal is still reunification. If there are any children in the home of the parents, you must visit them in the home twice per month. Caseworkers must visit traditional foster children in their foster placements at least one time per month - specialized kids must be seen twice. Things ramp up considerably when children are first returned home to their parents - weekly contact is required for the first six weeks and then slowly decreases if all is going well. Homevisits take a up a considerable amount of every caseworker's weekly schedule. (Think: 15 (non spec) cases = 15 foster home visits + 15 bio home visits per month in a total of 20ish work days.)
The number two responsibility for caseworkers is Parent/Child Visits. Parents in my state are granted a MINIMUM of one hour per week to visit with their children. For infants and toddlers, it is usually court mandated to be more like 2-3 times per week. Caseworkers must supervise or observe those visits at least twice a month. Foster parents, relatives, approved friends, or other agency staff can supervise the others. When parents are granted unsupervised visits, it is the caseworkers responsibility to drop in and observe some portion of those visits at least twice a month as well.
Now, in a perfect system, the caseworker could do all of the things above and delegate actually carrying out most of them to the various people involved with the children - the biological and foster families. However, in my experience, this rarely happens. Caseworkers are ultimately responsible for making sure that the services are completed. Caseworkers are ultimately responsible for making sure that visitation between parents and children happen at least once per week. Caseworkers are ultimately responsible for making sure that all documentation is in the case file for one of the 53 audits that are performed every month.
You do not want to be a caseworker in my state if you show up to court without some piece of this done.
So, if you are lucky, you will have foster parents who will help out and biological parents who are motivated and cooperative. If you are not lucky, you are running around for approximately 80 hrs a week taking children to appointments and visitation and sometimes school. All while simultaneously taking a parent bus cards and gas money to get to their AA meetings and re-referring them to their 6th therapist after they quit going to the last one. And in between, dropping off a voucher to a foster parent for a new bed frame and picking up the prescription that you got from the doctor so that you can deliver it to the next foster parent on the list of people you need to do things for today. It doesn't matter that all of these things should technically be done by the biological or foster parents themselves - if it isn't being done, the caseworker is ultimately the one being screamed at by a judge. Not to mention the agency financial sanctions. Or more importantly, the delay in the children achieving permanency.
Now, do I think that every caseworker follows each of these requirements to the letter?
No. I am not delusional.
But, do I think that my state has developed a pretty good checks and balances for ensuring that caseworkers are generally doing their jobs?
Yes. I believe that we do.
I think that the "One Family, One Worker" policy cuts down on a lot of the craziness that I hear from other families in other states. There are so many extra players in the life of a case - foster families, therapists, treatment providers, attorneys, etc - that it is helpful that there is one person responsible for streamlining the services and their various recommendations. I also can't imagine the chaos that must ensue when the person who is responsible for making all the recommendations about a family's future isn't seeing them more than a couple times a year!
Having only one worker means that everyone knows who to call in the case of an emergency, if they have a question, or if they just need to vent.
Having one worker means that a single person is seeing the case from all sides - child's, parent's, foster family's.
Having one worker means that when something isn't being done properly - the buck stops somewhere.
There are also "cons" to having a single caseworker. The biggest issue usually comes about when a caseworker loses their objectivity. Having a single pair of eyes looking at the whole case can be a hazard if those eyes have become jaded or are wearing rose colored glasses! I have often been in the position of feeling desperately sorry for a foster family who is saying goodbye to a child they've loved, while simultaneously advocating for the biological parent who has worked hard to turn their life around, and feeling desperately sorry for the child who is likely to lose significant people in their lives either way. Everyone has their own biases - and it is imperitive that caseworkers recognize their biases and recieve the proper supervision in order to avoid letting them cloud their judgement. It is still something that I have to re-evalulate everytime I help a worker make a decision about a case. Nobody is perfect, but our decisions have life altering consequences - we must be extremely careful how we are making them!
In my state, caseworkers are responsible for making a million recommendations in the life of a case - but ultimately make very few final decisions. Judges make all the final decisions regarding placement, services, and permenancy. I wish I could even tell you that caseworkers' opinions are highly regarded - but that depends on the agency and the worker in most cases. Even when the caseworker holds some esteem, the court is generally looking for someone else's opinion to be the deciding factor. In my state, it is generally the therapist - the parents' individual therapist, the child's individual therapist, and/or the family therapist. Almost no decision gets made without their input.
The caseworker mostly does a lot of "reporting" - reporting the status of the parents in services, reporting the adjustment of the children in their foster home, and reporting the written documentation of the service providers. I have often been frustrated by the high level of "responsibility" in being a caseworker while having almost no "authority" over the case outcomes.
The only other "worker" that exists in my state is the foster family's "Licensing Worker". The sole purpose of this worker is to manage the foster home license. They come out twice a year to do updates on the foster parents' homestudy. They may occasionally call and let the foster parents know of some change in the license renewal process or to distribute info about upcoming trainings. If there are allegations that the foster parent is breaking a rule of licensure - they come out to investigate and make recommendations. But otherwise, they are not involved with the children placed in the home or the family case. They are not part of any meetings regarding the children or biological parents. They never attend court. They make no recommendation regarding permanency - guardianship or adoption. Not to minimize their roles, but they have fairly minimal roles!
I loved being a caseworker - it was also the hardest job I'll ever have in my entire life. Of that I am certain. Almost every interviewer I've had since being a caseworker has said, "If you can be a child welfare caseworker, you can do anything in social work". I don't know if I believe that is true - but if you can be a child welfare caseworker and not quit social work altogether, I think that is a pretty good indicator of future success in the field!
I will also say that, in my experience, being a caseworker will push you to grow and cause you to evaluate everything around you in a new light. You see the absolute worst sides of people - and not just those who have been charged with abuse or neglect. Child welfare brings out the worst in family members, service providers, lawyers, neighbors, teachers, etc.
Then you must go home at night, and try to explain your day to your significant other, or your roommate, or your dog.
It is impossible sometimes.
Most people won't get it.
You will be reduced to gritting your teeth and replying, "I work with kids in foster care", when someone asks you what you do for a living.
You will then smile and nod when they either A) gush about how "special" you are for doing such a hard job or B) immediately tell you the story about their one distant relative who had their kids taken away by a social worker once.
But, if you allow yourself to be vulnerable. ..
If you allow yourself to be humbled...
If you allow yourself to be challenged...
If you allow yourself to be open...
Being a caseworker will change your life.
It did mine.