Child Welfare Workforce’s Burden

James J. Kelly, Ph.D., ACSW, LCSWFrom the President

Throughout my social work career, I’ve watched some of my most passionate and determined colleagues choose to devote their professional lives to the important and sensitive field of child welfare. Professional social workers employed by public and private child welfare agencies care deeply about the well-being of children, many of whom have no voice and no advocate to stand up for their rights. These social workers are some of the most committed and caring I’ve known, yet if we were to ask the public their thoughts on the child welfare system, chances are their answers would not be positive.

It is unfortunate that we typically hear about child welfare only when something goes terribly wrong, and then we often hear only part of the truth. Confidentiality laws, crafted to protect the rights of children, often prevent the social work community from sharing the very information that would help to tell the whole story and educate the public about the difficult decision-making and immense complexity of child welfare.

I was recently reminded of the urgency of this topic as I witnessed the dismissal of the director of the Department of Children and Family Services in Los Angeles County, a lifelong child services worker for the agency, a professional social worker who devoted her career to making a difference in the lives of vulnerable children. Another reminder of the vulnerability of social workers working in child welfare was the dismissal of six social workers in Washington, D.C., in January 2008 in response to finding four children murdered by their mother.

In each instance these dismissals took place in agencies that were also noted to be making progress in several of the ways they served children and families. Accomplishments, for example, include children staying safely at home with their families, spending less time in care and finding permanent families more quickly through safe reunification, adoption, and legal guardianship. Yet due to the complexity of child welfare systems, 100 percent safety for all children is a goal to be achieved, but it is rarely attained.

All child welfare administrative, supervisory or frontline practice positions are intense, complex and difficult to say the least. Much of the good work done by these professionals is ignored until a crisis occurs, at which time resources and energy are devoted to finding who was at fault, often resulting in child welfare workers being terminated. We have witnessed this too many times.

It is critically important to point out failures in the system and tragic circumstances of failed decision-making and poor service delivery. However, the child welfare system is also dealing with too few resources, growing caseloads, undertrained staff, stressful working conditions and little public understanding. We know that many child welfare workers are balancing their professional obligations with low salaries, the risk of violence, administrative burdens and emotional exhaustion. This work is professionally and personally taxing, truly understood by few, and quickly criticized by many.

There is no doubt that child abuse and neglect in this country is staggering and in need of scrutiny. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported an estimated 3.3 million referrals for child maltreatment, involving the alleged maltreatment of approximately six million children. An estimated 772,000 children were determined to be victims of abuse and neglect and an estimated 1,740 children died due to child abuse or neglect. As the NASW Center for Workforce Studies states, child abuse and neglect occur in all segments of society, within families from all walks of life, at all income levels, all religious denominations, and all racial and cultural backgrounds. There is no single causal factor predictive of families who abuse and neglect their children. Further, children who experience maltreatment are at an increased risk of negative consequences including health, development, physical and mental challenges. Social workers recognize that in order to truly help protect children by preventing child maltreatment, families must also be helped by identifying and addressing the individual, familial and community-wide challenges they encounter.

Research shows that professional social workers in child welfare agencies are more likely to find permanent homes for children who were in foster care for two or more years. Unfortunately, fewer than 40 percent of child welfare workers are professional social workers. Therefore, when the child welfare system is fairly, or unfairly, targeted by reporters and politicians who decide to renew their focus on these issues, our entire profession takes the blame. Whether a child welfare worker is a social worker or not, this is unjust to those professionals accomplishing successful outcomes for children and families every day.

Local and state governments and all stakeholders need to hold child welfare systems accountable. However, we also must support our child welfare workforce if we expect it to accomplish the goals we have set for our nation’s vulnerable families. It is imperative that we continue to have well-educated social workers whose skills are kept current and whose interventions can lead to preventing abuse. I hope that our profession continues to provide leadership in this discussion, and that the public, media, politicians and stakeholders provide the support necessary to protect our nation’s children, and not create negative prophecies with the expectation that our workforce will fail.