April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. As a former child welfare worker, this month is always a time of reflection for me. In my local office, stress was high in April in anticipation of the influx of reports we would receive as a result of greater community awareness around child abuse, adding to our already high caseloads. April meant more cases and unfortunately removals, which usually led to increased struggles to secure foster placements. Proclamations, conferences, wearing abuse prevention themed shirts, and pinwheel planting events to bring awareness to the public regarding the pervasiveness of child abuse and how to make reports of allegations of abuse and neglect filled our calendars. We scrambled to fit the events between home visits, team meetings, court hearings, and writing reports. I will not easily forget the devastating impact of child abuse and neglect on children and families I witnessed firsthand, nor how the capacity crisis in child welfare hindered our ability to provide adequate and quality services to all children and families in need.
One case that has stayed with me involved a referral we received regarding concerns of neglect by a single parent who struggled to make ends meet while providing for their children. Unfortunately, one child suffered an injury when the kids were left alone at home while the parent went to work. The physical harm and continued risk, and other issues, led to our decision to remove the children and place them in foster care. However, the needed support for the family was delayed for weeks, then months, due to the messy and capacity-depleted systems in place already overwhelmed with a backlog of cases. Meanwhile, the children remained in foster care, which was traumatic for them and the parent, not to mention the cost for the state’s taxpayers.
This case illustrates the importance of increasing capacity in child welfare. Had we provided services to the parent earlier, we might have prevented the injury, removal, and trauma the whole family experienced. Moreover, we could have prevented the backlog of cases from delaying the services and provided the parent with the support they needed more promptly.
Child welfare workers are on the front lines of protecting children from abuse and neglect, and it is essential to highlight the problems facing child welfare systems in the United States that impact our ability to keep kids safe. One of the most significant challenges is the capacity crisis in child welfare. This crisis is preventing agencies from providing adequate services to the very children and families in need.
The Capacity Crisis in Child Welfare
The Capacity Crisis in child welfare refers to the fact that there is more work than agencies have time and resourses to complete. According to the Children’s Bureau, in 2021, an estimated 3,987,000 total referrals were received by CPS agencies nationally, and about 600,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect . Child welfare workers managing these referrals are responsible for making high-risk decisions each day and often face long hours, overwhelming caseloads, stressful, very nonenjoyable working conditions, and work-life imbalances. The pressures can lead to burnout and high turnover rates, making it difficult for them to provide the best possible care and detrimental to the well-being of the children and families they serve. There are real children and families behind the statistics, and if they do not receive the necessary support or time from their worker, this can lead to additional abuse, neglect, or prolonged placement in foster care.
To further clarify the daily reality of the capacity crisis in child welfare, let’s take a quick real-world look at child welfare asssesments/investigations. On average it takes anywhere from 16-20 hours to complete an investigation end-to-end. We see it as common practice for assessment workers to receive 3-4 case assignments per week. That is 48-60 hours of work assigned each week, every week and yet staff only have 40 hours available for work, not even factoring in staff meetings, trainings, supervision, personal time off, etc. That is not sustaininable and something ultimately gives. What usually gives is the time a worker would like to have spend with families or doing more preventative work.
How Do We Increase Capacity in Child Welfare?
To address these challenges and effectively utilize prevention services, child welfare agencies must increase their capacity to serve all children and families identified as potentially in need. Here are some practical steps to increase capacity for child welfare workers, in the form of time:
- Restructure case flow to reduce bottlenecks and rework: Streamline processes by simplifying procedures and eliminating redundant and duplicative tasks so that workers can spend more time with families and less time in front of their computers. By reducing bottlenecks, duplicative and rework, agencies can serve families more efficiently and effectively, improving families’ chances of successful outcomes. Streamlining processes can help reduce turnover rates, reduce stress, and improve the quality of care provided by child welfare workers.
- Move case actions as close to the safety decision as possible: Reduce delays by making critical decisions early in the process and acting on those decisions. By moving case actions closer to the safety decision, agencies can reduce the time children and families spend in limbo and prevent unnecessary removals by focusing more on the families that need it.
- Keep cases from shifting to the back burner, especially safe ones, and dedicate resources to help eliminate backlog: All families should be prioritized and given appropriate attention to ensure they receive the assistance and services they need on time. But currently, cases are staying open with no action taken, which leads to delays and confusion, which can ultimately harm children and families. Child welfare agencies can prevent cases from lingering by monitoring their progress regularly and addressing any obstacles quickly. By dedicating resources to eliminating the backlog, agencies can reduce their workload and improve efficiency, enabling them to meet families’ needs promptly.
These are just a few examples of what agencies can use as strategies to support their workforce to gain capacity/time and to ensure the right kids and families receive care – at the right time, the right level and for the right amount of time.
As we observe Child Abuse Prevention Month, we must remember that utilizing prevention services to prevent child abuse should be a top priority, and increasing capacity is a critical part of achieving this goal to honor the families and staff involved. By increasing the capacity of child welfare systems, we can make a difference in children’s and families’ lives and help prevent child abuse and neglect in our communities.
 U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. (2023). Child Maltreatment 2021. Available from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/data-research/child-maltreatment.