Paperwork is a dirty word in social services. Social work is not about keeping records, it’s about “hands-on” interpersonal contact with abused children, single parents, the neglected elderly, the abandoned homeless, and other vulnerable populations. As you might suspect, as social work became a more integral part of our society’s fabric, our social workers have been swamped by a virtual paperwork tsunami.
We recently talked to a child and family services case worker in Phoenix, Arizona who, contrary to popular opinion, shed a positive light on all this confounded paperwork.
Here’s what she had to say:
GVT - Are you overwhelmed with paperwork?
CFCW - Well, we are required to take copious notes on every interaction we have with our clients. All this note taking certainly is time consuming, but as I see it, it is necessary and, if done right, helpful as well.
GVT - The paperwork required of caseworkers has certainly grown over the years. Why is that?
CFCW - Years ago, most social work was government work. Government jobs have many specific requirements for documentation to be completed by case managers, and case managers who are licensed by the state must also meet certain specifications. As our missions have grown, more stakeholders from the private sector have become involved. Now, there are many more private agencies dedicated to supporting our society’s vulnerable populations, and that naturally adds additional stakeholders like donors, boards, and management who all have an interest in outcomes. Grant-funded case management requires careful documentation, and careful note taking is integral to providing the best possible service to clients.
GVT - How about regulators?
CFCW - Them, too. Government social workers are regulated by their agency’s infrastructure, but NGOs are regulated by their own boards and a complex network of government overseers who all require some kind of reporting paperwork.
GVT - What is all this oversight designed to accomplish?
CFCW - Keep in mind that the primary stakeholder in all this is the client. Much of the oversight is there to protect their privacy, for example, and see to it that we (social workers) are properly trained and doing effective and ethical work.
In addition, NGO boards want to audit whether we are accomplishing our stated mission. Donors want to know the same thing.
GVT - How much of your paperwork would you estimate is reporting to outside stakeholders?
CFCW - Quite a bit, I would say. I can’t estimate an exact percentage but much of the reporting requirements dovetail with the administrative record keeping that any manager would use to stay organized and on task. Things like intake forms and incident reports are information I need to design a course of action for a client. I need up-to-date contact information, court records, family background checks, health records, and current biographical data to keep up with a client’s changing environment.
GVT - How many clients do you deal with simultaneously?
CFCW - I’m not at liberty to tell you that but suffice to say there is great need out there and limited resources in here. Case managers are not dealing with static individuals, but rather see each individual client as a “case”. By “case" we mean the client’s life story for a brief interlude. That means, what happened to the child; what are its current circumstances; who else is impacting the child’s life; what action is being taken to help remedy the situation; who is taking the action; what is the child’s current status; what needs to be done in the future to advance the child’s welfare; who will do it? In my world, that’s a typical case structure. How would you like to manage 40 or 50 such cases without keeping careful records?
GVT – So I guess you might say that you welcome the paperwork required in your job.
CFCW – That might be going a bit far. But it is fair to say that accurate and timely record keeping serves me and my clients just as much, or more, than it serves regulators and other external stakeholders. For them it provides a secondary benefit, but for me and my clients accurate, timely record keeping is primary.