Foster Kids Caseworker Crisis Revealed

Several disturbing news stories last month highlighted adults who had committed multiple counts of sexual abuse on children. These stories were posted on social media to increase public awareness of the extent of U.S. child sexual abuse. In many such cases, abused children have already come to the attention of social services, some kids having been placed in foster care and later returned home. 

A few people blamed these abuses on the failure of caseworkers to perform their job properly. Other commenters bristled at the suggestion that a poor work environment for social workers plays a detrimental role that negatively affects the lives of the foster children they supervise.  

Virtually everyone feels empathy for the plight of foster children. These kids have been taken from their homes -- sometimes as they watch a parent being restrained or cuffed by the authorities. In some instances, children are separated immediately from other siblings and each taken to a different facility or foster home, adding to the immense pain and trauma these kids feel. 

The outcome for each child often rests on the work of their assigned caseworker. These adults could be viewed as heroes for these children. Yet, compared to other professionals, social care workers are rarely held in high esteem by the public or the foster children they serve. Teachers can be selected for awards in their district, county, state or even nationally. Nurses and doctors generally enjoy respect and admiration from society for their skills in saving lives and helping the injured. Many other professions enjoy a certain level of applause and recognition from the public - and who doesn’t love a firefighter!

But when all is said and done, social care workers are not even close to the top ten of professions that garner positive attention or respect.  

On many levels, this is actually a tragedy.

Many caseworkers have spent years in college studying social work. Thousands of young people enter the field because, just like those in health care and education, they have a real passion to help people. These adults are open-minded and ready to make a difference to the children they serve. Then reality hits hard as soon as they start working in foster care. These optimistic, eager adults essentially go from the classroom to the battlefield, from structure to triage, in some cases with no transitional phase to ease them into the work.  

One of the greatest challenges to the success and longevity of case handlers is the accepted norm of overburdening them with too many children. Our charity just received a new case with four siblings. We have worked other cases that involved as many as six children. Do the math – two cases and the number of children is already at ten. 

However, child services professionals do not handle just two cases or even ten cases a month. Many are managing a volume of work that is impossible for even the most seasoned social workers to manage. Research studies over the years have arrived at 17 as being the maximum number of cases that any one social worker can deal with while proficiently performing the required work to ensure that each child is safe.  

These duties include regular visits to the home to check for physical issues, such as broken windows, nails sticking up from the floor, and filthy living conditions. Staff ensure that each foster child has their own bed and space. Each visit requires paperwork. Court appearances generally require the social service member to be present. Although some of the work in foster care is presently performed virtually, written reports are required and necessary to track each child. Generating these records takes an enormous amount of time.   

The reality for thousands of social workers across the country is that they are handling far more than 17 cases. Some take care of 20 to 40 cases, and from time to time after a county audit, records will show some workers being responsible for an untenable 60+ cases. With this overload of work, it seems evident that some, maybe the majority of caseworkers, are driven to cut corners out of a terrible necessity that ultimately places each child in their care at great risk of harm, abuse or even death.

Roughly 75,000 children enter foster care each year because they have suffered physical and/or sexual abuse. Monitoring these children is among the highest priorities of foster care agencies. Yet a few years ago, cutting corners resulted in a terrible emergency in Texas. The governor took an unprecedented step and authorized overtime for dozens of deputies to physically visit the homes of nearly 90 children whose lives were deemed to be at extreme risk. These kids were on this list because childcare professionals had not visited these children to perform their safety checks. 

Some might say these workers failed to do their job. The harsh truth is that they did fail, and their failure was part of a much larger problem with foster care, where caring, dedicated adults are being asked to safeguard foster children while also doing an impossible amount of required work.

In response to some negative comments posted about caseworkers, I wrote:

“Having enough social care workers to kids ratio is very important to ensure child safety. Just as teachers have only so many children in class so that each child gets attention, case officers also need to have a limit set on the number of children they handle. We've worked cases with several children attached to each one. 

Many caseworkers complain that their caseloads are too large, making these professionals choose between seeing each child once a month or doing the required paperwork. Childcare professionals equally deserve not to be expected to do way too much with too little. Very little will change until all states support budgets that allow for a proper social care worker to foster children ratio (roughly 17 cases), and states stop slashing these budgets, because that ultimately hurts children in welfare and foster care.”

My support of case officers brought one retort, “That sounds like an excuse.” I continued to press on about the accepted inequities that social care handlers suffer compared to professionals in other careers. 

“Our society seems to have a completely different attitude toward education when it comes to number of kids per teacher. Most people accept research findings that have concluded that class size of 28-30 children is the maximum allowed so that kids get quality instruction from teachers.

There is a breaking point for everyone where quality drops, mistakes are made, or people burn out. There's only so much that people can give before they burn out, and that's exactly what has and is happening with foster care workers.”

The consequences stemming from a teacher doing a mediocre job is that tests may not get graded on time, students may get frustrated and lose interest in the class, or the vast majority fails an important test, making it obvious that the teacher’s educational prowess has hit a new low. The worst end result – upset parents and children and bad grades. 

Unfortunately, an all too common situation in foster care is a caseworker who is so overwhelmed, they are unable to visit every child under their care in a timely manner or spend the extra time with “at-risk” youths who are in a household with an abuser. A possible and horrible outcome – the rape, torture, or death of a child. Not to denigrate teachers - I was a university professor myself - but no comparison can be made between any failures in their instruction because of too many students to the possibly deadly outcome for a child when their social care worker is responsible for too many children.

One of the solutions for this case overload is Family Finding, the searching and locating of a child’s adult family members. This effort usually results in locating one or more relatives who may at least be interested in having contact with the child. In the best cases, a family member, such as an aunt or grandparent, will take the foster child into their care.  

Another positive upshot of Family Finding is that when foster children are more quickly placed with relatives, their vacancy reduces the total number of cases and can help lower the caseload for social workers. This outcome will not solve all of the challenges of case overburden. However, successful Family Finding often moves those children who spend years in foster care out of the system and into a permanent home with relatives. Children under the care of family members generally fare better emotionally and mentally than those who are placed with strangers, and much better than those moved into a group home setting.

Just as teachers and other professionals have a union, which works as a collective to set acceptable work standards, caseworkers need some entity to do the same. Until social care workers are given workloads that can be managed properly, thousands of foster children each year will be at risk of harm, abuse or death because of their foster situation. The loss of even one child must be enough for politicians and the industry to work to set standards across the country. Foster kids deserve the best we as a society can give them, and too many children are far from receiving the care and protection they need.