This Labor Day weekend I’m reminded that those who shoulder the responsibility for managing the care of foster children get even less attention than those in their care. With state budgets shrinking the burdens on these workers will only increase.
When positions are cut, caseloads increase. The Child Welfare League of America recommends that child welfare workers have responsibility in the range of twelve to fifteen ongoing cases. It’s important to remember that managing “a case” does not mean simply monthly visits with a child in foster care. It often means that the caseworker has contact with biological and foster parents, with siblings, grandparents and other members of the child’s extended family. It may also mean conferences with teachers, physicians, mental health specialists, and attorneys. Of course, these people are not in one easily reachable place and are often difficult to contact. Dropping even one more case on a worker’s desk dramatically increases her workload.
And it is likely to be “her” workload. Approximately 70% of child welfare caseworkers are women who earn in the range of $25,000 to $30,000 annually. According to one online site, salaries posted for caseworkers are 23% lower than all job postings nationally. Not surprisingly, turnover in this population is high; over 30% of caseworkers leave their posts every year.
We are used to thinking about the impact of repeated and unexpected losses on foster children, but the chronic loss of coworkers and colleagues also depletes the morale of the caseworkers who are left behind. Of course, low morale affects job performance. Caseworkers enter the child welfare workforce because they want to do well by children; when they are not able to do their jobs as well as they would like, their self-esteem suffers even more.
Caseworkers have really, really hard jobs. On a daily basis, they see children who have been abused and neglected. They meet with parents who are distraught over losing their children. They encounter family members and attorneys who are in pitched battles over what is best for a given child. And when that part of their work is done, they sit in front of a computer to complete seemingly endless forms to document their work.
The stories of the caseworkers who do their jobs well day after day do not make front page news. When negligence or overwork or a perfect storm of factors results in the injury or death of a foster child, headlines often demonize the caseworker because it’s easier than addressing the contributing complexities of the foster care system.
Labor Day is an annual opportunity to honor those whose work often goes unnoticed and unsung. I speak for the board, the staff, and the volunteers of A Home Within across the country in saying “thank you” to all the caseworkers who willingly take on the extraordinary responsibility of caring for foster children and youth.
By Toni Heineman