Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2009

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Leadership Lens

Christine James-Brown

When I worked in Philadelphia, I used to pass a hotel every day on my way to work. Over the employee entrance, a sign read: "Our most valuable assets pass through these doors every day." In the child welfare system it is certainly true that employees--particularly, caseworkers--are a very valuable asset. Our common sense tells us this is true, and research supports it. The Child and Family Service Reviews have demonstrated that the more time a caseworker spends with a child and family, the better the outcomes.

Despite caseworkers' role in helping our most vulnerable children and families, they are not fully appreciated. Kathleen Belanger's article ("They Are All Our Children") illustrates the critical role that child welfare workers play in the lives of the families and children that they serve. Whenever I hear current or former foster youth talk about their experiences in the child welfare system, it is almost always a caseworker who made a lasting impact--good or bad--on their lives.

Caseworkers, especially those responsible for child protective services, frequently go into dangerous situations, where they are all too often viewed as the enemy. These brave, caring people are sometimes very young and almost always underpaid and undertrained, without enough resources to do their jobs as well as they would like. According to a 2005 survey, the average caseload size for a child protective worker was 26.3, more than twice the CWLA-recommended 12 active cases per month. The average minimum salary for a caseworker was approximately $32,000 in 2004; the median income for a family of four in the U.S. was approximately $75,000. In a situation where children need consistency in the relationship with their caseworker, dangerous work environments, large caseload sizes, low salaries, and other factors lead to high worker turnover rates. This ultimately results in insufficient services for children and families.

The article by Julie Collins (Addressing Secondary Traumatic Stress") highlights the trauma that many caseworkers face when they are exposed to children and families in trauma. We have long recognized secondary traumatic stress as it relates to the medical profession and firefighters. It is time that this is recognized and addressed as it relates to child welfare workers.

An April 9, 2000, Washington Post article by April Witt focused on the crisis in child welfare hiring resulting from the then-thriving economy. In the article, Witt described the day-to-day danger and challenge of being a caseworker and said "the result is a national shortage of child abuse investigators, exacerbated by a boom economy, that has left public agencies throughout the region scrambling to hire and keep skilled child welfare workers." It seems that vulnerable children and families just can't catch a break. Rather than a boom economy, we are experiencing a crisis economy that is also likely to have a negative impact on having enough well-paid, well-trained, well-supported caseworkers.

As part of its advocacy agenda, CWLA clearly has the responsibility to enhance the public policy environment in support of positive outcomes for vulnerable children and families. But we also have a responsibility to improve the image of the child welfare system and to increase the level of respect and recognition for its most important asset--the child welfare worker. The community meetings held in connection with the planned White House Conference will provide an excellent opportunity to bring the nation's attention to the critical role the child welfare worker plays. During this time of economic hardship, it is important to remember that our child welfare workers are experiencing even greater challenges and stress. Many of them are dealing with their own personal financial pressure at the same time that their agencies and clients are experiencing the same thing. We have to do all that we can to support child welfare workers. It is the right thing to do--for their own well-being, and because their well-being is a critical factor in advancing improved outcomes for our most vulnerable children and families.

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