March is National Social Work month, and there has been a lot of talk about the importance of social workers. But for all of the gratitude, there certainly seems to be a lack of support for people willing to do the job.
In Oregon, caseworker turnover was 23% in 2016, according to an audit. About one-third of child welfare staff were in their first 18 months on the job. The Pennsylvania State Auditor cites county turnover rates for direct child welfare service personnel of up to 50%. There appear to be no national data on worker turnover, but news articles across the country continue to report high turnover rates as a major problem facing child welfare systems.
I know first-hand the reasons for high social worker turnover in child welfare. I abandoned an easier and better-paying career in policy research and analysis to become a child welfare social worker in the District of Columbia. I worked for a nonprofit agency that provided foster care and case management to children under the jurisdiction of the District’s Child and Family Services Agency. I lasted almost five years before giving up in exhaustion and despair.
At first, I loved my job. I loved the feeling of making a difference in children’s lives. I loved trying to find the right services to meet the needs of the children and their birth parents. I loved teaming with teachers and service providers to help my kids and parents achieve their goals. I was thrilled when I was able to find a family friend or relative who could provide a temporary or permanent home for a child.
A huge part of my job involved driving. Some of my clients lived as far as 30 miles–over an hour’s drive in the congested Washington D.C. metro area–from the office. One was at a juvenile justice placement 90 miles away, just under the 100-mile limit so that I was still required to visit him twice a month.
When foster parents said they could not leave work and our overworked paraprofessionals were unavailable, I had to take my clients to the doctor, dentist, therapist, and for family visits. I spent as much as 10 hours a week driving and I logged as many as 300 miles per month. I don’t see how it makes sense for a person with a master’s degree in social work to serve as a paid driver.
Finally, there was the endless list of things I had to do that did not help my clients at all. All of these requirements stemmed from a reasonable goal but they were often badly designed and became ends in themselves.
A case in point is the Youth Transition Plan (YTP). This arose from the valid concern that many youth were becoming homeless after aging out of foster care. The YTP was supposed to be a road map that would be modified periodically by a youth’s team starting at the age of 15, to ensure that the youth would age out with education, skills, and a job. When I first started as a social worker, these plans were actually useful. For each area (like education and employment) the plan listed specific actions, who was responsible, and the deadline. When I met with my clients we would go through the plan and make sure we were on track, and it served as a basis for our periodic team meetings.
Unfortunately, the child welfare agency (CFSA) decided in 2014 that we had to use a new “Transition Toolkit,” which was 36 pages and consists of over ten separate forms. It is so complicated that the agency eventually distributed at two-page guide to social workers outlining all the steps involved in preparing a transition plan for a youth. Using the plan was so difficult that CFSA eventually stopped requiring completion of the individual forms and instead allowed workers to cut and paste a short section of each form together, essentially recreating the previous template, in a much more cumbersome and time-consuming form.
Things were at their worst whenever one of my colleagues left the job. I would then get two or three more cases and things became totally out of control. For the next two to three months, until a replacement was hired and trained, proactive case management took a back seat to crisis management, and the stress became almost unbearable
I received frequent praise from supervisors, attorneys, and judges because my clients got the services they needed and my cases actually moved toward permanency. But after five years, I could no longer maintain the brutal pace and the constant stress.
For most child welfare social workers in D.C. around the country, there are simply not enough hours in a day to do the work that matters plus the work that is required, as described brilliantly in a column about a social worker in Maine. Too many hours have to be spent doing things that others should do, or completing meaningless forms that don’t help the clients.
At the same time, the proliferation of standards and requirements has engendered top- heavy bureaucracies, with a proliferation of managers and specialists to ensure that the standards get met. All of the specialists were supposed to be there to help us but they seemed to be more likely to make burdensome requests for information. I have not seen data on this, but it seems that the ratio of client-serving personnel to those who do not serve clients has been decreasing every year.
I worked in a private agency which had a supervisor and a program manager to manage five social workers and three case aides. I assume that a ratio of two managers to eight client-serving staff is hardly an approved model taught in schools of public administration. Of course the managers did not spend most of their time managing us. Instead, they were busy preparing performance reports and responding to demands for information from the CFSA.
To what extent is increased funding necessary to retaining social workers? Clearly it depends on the state or county. In many jurisdictions, the ridiculously low salaries and high caseloads can be remedied only by increased funding. In better funded systems like the District, a reallocation of resources away from managers and specialists, shiny new projects and initiatives, along with an elimination of meaningless requirements and paperwork, might allow for a great improvement without increased funding.
In addition, social workers must be relieved of the burdens that more properly belong to paraprofessionals and foster parents. While this would represent a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars, it might require increased outlays to ensure there are enough paraprofessionals and foster parents who are willing to act as parents and and not expect social workers to do their job for them.