Remember the song?
Rock a Bye Baby
In the Tree Top
When the Wind Blows
The Cradle Will Rock.
When the Bough Breaks
The Cradle Will Fall
And Down Will Come Baby
Cradle and All.
Those lyrics are really morbid if you dwell on them. A child perched high in a mighty tree but upon an ailing limb that cracks under the pressure of the wind; sending the child to the ground.
That lullaby is a perfect symbol for the current cracked and ailing child welfare system.
The system, full of widening cracks, needs a major overhaul to function in the capacity for which it is meant: protecting children, preserving families and moving children to a stable and lasting permanency. Most people point the accusatory finger at social workers for system failures. In reality, the vast majority of social workers are dedicated professionals who are passionate about their job, often describing what they do as a mission.
No. If child welfare is a safety bridge. the blame for the crumbling and decaying supports lay much higher. As with all government agencies, lack of funding begets lack of resources. Much like the biblical story of Pharoah and Moses, the expectations for the building of the bridge lay on the backs of the caseworkers. They are given less and less straw in which to form the bricks needed to support the bridge, but expected to increase production.
And, sadly, the lack of funding comes directly from the State and Federal Legislators, who for all of their posturing on family values, actually do not value the protection of children very highly.
But that’s not a new thing. The department that administers child protective services only came into being in the 19th century, with the case of Mary Ellen Wilson, a child living in New York City in an abusive home. There were laws, at that time, protecting animals…but not children. Mary was rescued from her abusive parents due to an intervention by the leader of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals.
Animals were protected…
Children were property.
Thankfully. because of the attention that Mary Ellen’s case generated, New York formed the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. And soon other cities, and finally the nation followed.
But the priority for children’s services has always been overshadowed by the reluctance of Legislators to mandate how families parent their children. In truth, I can understand that having the government involved in Parenting is not an outcome any of us want. But protecting the innocent from being harmed should be paramount to all.
In response to public outcries for overhauls in the child welfare system (usually following a highly publicized case of child abuse) the federal government typically passes new laws which develop into more stringent policies for the agency. Instead of analyzing the issue and taking the time to put in the supports needed to accomplish the goal; a cannon is fired to kill a snake, when a sharp stick would do the trick.
One good example is when states declared the edict to remove children from congregate care (group homes and residential facilities). That would be an excellent thing if more resources and planning were involved. I have seen the benefits of treatment foster care in a family setting over institutionalized care for traumatized children. However. States did not increase funding for more treatment foster homes. So where would these children who need more therapy and structure go? And where was the thoughtful planning involved?
One of the most basic need for overhauling child welfare lies in determining caseload size. Caseloads standards, on average, run around 18 families per worker. That may not sound like a burden. However, these workers are dealing daily with the complexities of generational violence, mental illness and the ever increasing drug epidemic. And as the families come to us more and more damaged, the children in foster care come to us more and more traumatized. The job is not just protecting children anymore. Now the caseworker faces the ever increasing demands of working with a population( both parents and children) of trauma victims. And despite a caseload of 18, most state child welfare agencies experience high turnover, which means actual caseloads can be as high as 25 to 30.
The toll is heavy and the work is physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting. When the workers burn out, families and children suffer. But again, the blame should not rest on their bent shoulders, but on the lack of resources allotted to a broken system.
Caseloads, realistically, should not be higher than 10 families. I have seen new workers enter the profession and slowly build up their caseloads. They are passionate about their calling and eager to put in the time and effort needed to deal with the complexities of family dysfunction. At about 10 cases, they are still excited and motivated to fight the good fight. However, as their caseloads increase they face the realization that they cannot do everything they want to do with each family. Their mission of making a difference becomes dampened by the realities of their own limits. I watch them physically change as they react to crises, time constraints and the sheer mountain of paperwork demanded daily on each case, They walk more slowly, they smile less often and they cry more.
If Child Welfare was properly funded so that case worker’s could continue with 10 cases, the outcome would be tremendous. Children would not come into care so quickly if caseworkers had the time and resources to assess and to provide families with more preservation services. Foster children would exit foster care more quickly to their families, a relative or adoption. With adequate funding for child welfare in the front end, the outcomes on the back end would be swifter and more positive.
Unrealistic Caseloads are just one crack In a broken system. Next blog will focus on the lack of thorough and meaningful training for those in the trenches.