The definition of appreciation, according to Merriam-Webster, is the feeling of being grateful with an awareness or understanding of worth or value. As a social worker in the child welfare system for over a decade, the definition of appreciation materialized as a slightly decorated conference room where staff were voluntold to gather for an annual breakfast, receiving paper awards signed by a director they had never met. As a supervisor, I generally found my team rushing into said appreciation breakfast 5 minutes late after seeing a bruised child at school because “attendance is mandatory”, only to run out the door with their Award of Excellence to work the 45 files on their desk begging for immediate attention.
And so, I find myself in March again, Social Work Month, facing the truth that as a prior leader in the child welfare industry, I did not appreciate my team well. With the most honorable intentions, I would spend hours brainstorming creative ways to recognize my team, because raises and bonuses were almost always out of the question. Yet nearly all efforts fell short in valuing the reality of my staff working long hours and missing countless personal events in service of children and families. No annual event could suffice for that level of sacrifice. Instead, the hamster wheel continued to roll on: over worked, underpaid, appreciation breakfast, repeat.
But what if there was a better way? What if, instead of working so hard to appreciate the sacrifice, child welfare leaders took a long look in the mirror to see why social workers must sacrifice work-life balance in the first place? Maybe the question isn’t about how we appreciate social workers well. Maybe the real question is how we get off the hamster wheel and create system capacity, so appreciation is reserved for a job well done, not to make up for personal life lost.
Capacity Crunch #1: The Front End
At some point, great minds determined it should take about 30-45 days to assess child safety, however, trained child welfare staff give a different answer. Most frontline child welfare team members will say they know when a child is clearly safe in the first few days of an assignment, but the case remains open for the full 30 or 45 regulatory days because making the determination is the smallest portion of the work. Most decisions are followed by hours of documentation for CYA; and with cases assigned daily, the best strategy is to put aside the file of a safe child to prioritize new reports. This vicious cycle creates a condition where most safe reports are not completed but put on the back burner until there is time to fully document. When backlog is a chronic condition, and it almost always is, social workers are forced to live with undone work taking up precious mental and emotional space. Over months and years, the chronic stress of being behind becomes burnout, and no system can appreciate its way out of burnout. For survival, social workers quit.
A Better Way: What if we did away with the back burner and designed a process to consult cases immediately when a safety decision was made? A few states have made this radical process change by developing a new path for safe cases where social workers can consult with a supervisor real time and determine if the case needs additional assessment or can be closed. Seemingly simple but incredibly courageous, these states have seen a decrease in caseloads by 90%, improved closure times by 80% and an average caseload of 10 on-going. Results that translate to social workers leaving the office on time, heading to the weekend current on work and erasing the tremendous burden of being so far behind there is no light at the end of the tunnel. That is appreciation. It is seeing, hearing, and valuing social workers.
Capacity Crunch #2: The Mountain of Documentation
The art of documentation in child welfare has lost its way. Social workers enter the profession to work alongside families and children but find themselves in front of a computer twice the amount of time they are with a family, documenting so that, perhaps, someone in the distant future will read it. The reality, however, is most of these beautifully written words will never see the light of day and the majority of policies on documentation are built for “what if” instead of “what is”.
A Better Way: Differential Documentation
Appreciation looks like trust and being trusted to complete an assessment to policy standards without documenting each detail is the kind of appreciation that can be extended to social workers right now. Though it may feel like entering unchartered waters, when a system is ready to improve documentation, it does not have to do so blindly. Capacity can be realized by simply considering who the customer of the documentation is. For abuse and neglect reports that are deemed safe, the customer is a case review specialist, the potential next worker, and the family. With that in mind, documentation can be tailored to what is necessary per policy and what foundational information a future social worker would need to understand the background of that family. States that are willing to see documentation through this differential lens have realized a reduction in total time per case of 6-8 hours. If each social worker is assigned 15 new cases per month, differential documentation could save 90 – 120 hours each month. That is 2-3 weeks of capacity savings, getting social workers away from the computer and back to social work.
Capacity Crunch #3: Finding a Foster Home Placement
There is not a social worker in the field that hasn’t worried about where to place a child in foster care. Nationally, there are more children with complex histories entering foster care than families ready and available to foster them and social workers spend hours locating a home knowing it may not be a good match for the child or family. This tragic reality is known by most child welfare agencies who are actively working on a solution. However, the solution is generally focused on recruitment, with an emphasis on finding new families to bring to the licensure process. But if the licensing process itself is broken, it doesn’t matter how many families you bring to the starting line. Inevitably they will become frustrated with the length of time and complexity, dropping out before ever receiving a license. This leaves social workers to search from the small list of families taking placements, calling family after family until someone is willing to say yes.
A Better Way: Streamline the Licensing Process:
Nothing makes a social worker feel more seen, heard, and valued than providing resources for children in the community and increasing the number of licensed relative and foster families is no different. The irony is the key to this vision exists in internal processes that can be changed with insight and a willingness to see licensing a little differently. Instead of viewing the licensing process as a way to assess and refer out families that aren’t up to the challenge of fostering, the agency can view it as time to support each relative or foster family side by side, with the goal of getting every family that inquires to full licensure. This calls on the agency to re-design foster care licensing with individualized support for interested families immediately upon inquiry, even completing the endless pile of paperwork during a home visit instead of assigning it as homework. States that have been willing to look at this shift found the potential of reducing the time from inquiry to licensure by 8 months, eliminating the complicated hoops for families to jump through and increasing the number of families that make it from inquiry to licensure exponentially. That feels like hope, and social workers can make a lot happen with just a little hope.
If we know the heart of appreciation is feeling grateful with an awareness of worth, it is hard to deny the best way to appreciate social workers is to improve the system in which they work. By making the work visible and radically improving processes that no longer make sense in the areas of safety assessment, documentation and foster care licensing, child welfare agencies can dramatically increase capacity and save hundreds of hours for social workers each year.
So, this March, while posting appreciation quotes on LinkedIn and buying donuts for social workers at the office, be willing to change the system. After all, the yearly appreciation breakfast will taste a lot better if social workers have the time and peace of mind to enjoy it.