September is National Child Welfare Workforce Development Month. It is fitting that the first full month of most schools going back in session is dedicated to development, as that is when volume spikes and we can all agree that there is much we need to do to prepare, support, and evolve workers to meet the needs of vulnerable children. With an entire month to recognize these efforts, we wanted to share an area of development that too often gets overlooked – increasing their capacity to help more kids.
I have had the privilege of meeting numerous social workers over the past eight years, ranging from newcomers to seasoned professionals. Regardless of their location, a common theme emerges – they love helping kids and they all feel burdened by overwhelming amount of work. When they explain the root cause of their stress, it isn’t primarily related to difficulty of assessing family safety or dealing with trauma; it is the pressure they feel to keep up with the work as volume and family complexity keeps adding more work to an already heavy caseload.
Caseworkers report feeling alone in making critical decisions due to limited time for consultations before reaching a deadline. While they try to find supervisor time, incessant reminders from IT systems make them feel inadequate in meeting the demands of their work. Compounding these feelings is the constant scrutiny from partners such as the court, law enforcement, advocacy groups, and contracted services adds to their stress. Despite these challenges, rarely do workers mention leaving the profession because of the work itself, but due to the overwhelming workload and feeling that they will never catch up.
The fact that so many of these individuals endure such stress for years and years speaks volumes about their resilience and commitment to helping vulnerable children. They must cope with the trauma they witness, deal with the stress of making tough decisions, and sacrifice personal time to support someone else’s child. These individuals possess a remarkable amount of love and passion for the well-being of vulnerable children.
The practices employed by child welfare agencies also reflect a similar story. While safety models and policies aim to ensure compliance and provide context, they often fall short of preparing workers for the realities they encounter, or account for the overwhelming volume. Deadlines and milestones, initially intended as safety measures and guidelines, end up becoming mere formalities when immediate needs conflict with standardized processes. Consequently, the best-intentioned paper-based procedures rarely align with the realities in local offices.
However, what consistently aligns is the empathy and understanding embedded in the hearts of these dedicated professionals. They rely on their intuition, going beyond the surface to uncover hidden problems. They provide resources when families are struggling financially and persistently work to find solutions. Their capacity to care shapes the decisions they make.
As someone who values data, I have studied the math behind the work. Assessments without findings require approximately 16 hours, increasing to 22-36 hours when agency involvement is necessary. Getting just 3 reports a week makes it impossible to keep up in a 40-hour week. Case workers need around 14 hours per child per month to keep up, limiting their ability to take on new cases or handle large caseloads effectively. Sadly, reality often involves overwhelming workloads that impede productivity.
The answer to the question of how any work gets done with such immense pressure lies in the amazing, caring hearts of those dedicated to child welfare. These individuals are the backbone of the system, advocating for the voiceless and ensuring the well-being of children. Their immeasurable contribution deserves our sincere gratitude.
While recognizing the need for ongoing development, we must make sure we are looking to developing ways to support these workers by building capacity. Providing continuous support to these incredible individuals beyond a single month by making sure there is time to do the day-to-day tasks needed to help keep kids safe. States across the country are adopting innovative approaches to enhance child welfare. They are streamlining processes, removing bottlenecks, allowing sufficient time for every child, and simplifying compliance-based activities related to abuse and neglect reports. To learn more about these initiatives, reach out to C!A’s Child Welfare Practice Team at firstname.lastname@example.org
Together, let us empower and support the amazing, caring hearts within the child welfare workforce. By investing in their well-being and addressing systemic challenges, we can create a more effective and compassionate system for vulnerable children.