To better understand the challenges facing caseworkers immersed in the struggle to protect children, this week we interviewed a Child and Family Care caseworker we have been acquainted with for many years. We wanted to offer a deeply personal insight into the world that these caseworkers inhabit. Our generous contributor this week has been a child and family care caseworker in Chicago for 21 years.
GVT: Thank you for sharing your time and your story with us. We believe that the dedication and empathy it takes to be a caseworker in child and family care is almost superhuman. Do you see yourself in that light?
CW: First, let me thank you on behalf of all caseworkers engaged in child protection for caring enough to interview me. We work mostly in the shadows, in the background so to speak, and are often surprised when anyone notices us. Most people find the issues surrounding child protection unpleasant and would rather not take a close look. It's a form of denial that comforts people when issues like homelessness or child abuse come to light.
GVT: Everyone engaged in social services agrees that child protection is one of the toughest areas of specialty for a case worker, yet you have stayed in that field for over 20 years. Why did you decide to stay with child and family care?
CW: Although the need is great in every area of social work, children are especially vulnerable in our modern society. I've come to believe that the widespread use of drugs has poisoned parenting to an especially toxic degree. Drug and alcohol abuse sneaks up on otherwise well-intentioned people and turns them into dysfunctional parents before they realize it. Poverty, crime, and domestic violence follow. Child neglect and abuse is getting worse in lockstep with drug abuse. One epidemic is following another. Ever since I began my career in child and family care, I have seen conditions for children worsen, not get better. I just couldn't abandon the children.
GVT: It has been reported that childcare has one of the highest case worker turnovers among all the areas of specialty. What would you attribute that to?
CW: Ironically, the same condition that keeps me coming back is driving many of my colleagues away. As the child abuse epidemic worsens, the caseloads are getting almost unbearable. The corps of caseworkers cannot keep up with the exploding need, and the existing staff are getting buried. Many can't handle the workload coupled with the emotional strain of constantly dealing with distressing and traumatic situations involving abused, neglected, or endangered children. The constant exposure to trauma and the personal investment in each case takes a toll on their mental and emotional well-being.
GVT: If you'll forgive me, that sounds grim. What can be done to ease this burden?
CW: I don't have the answer. It seems to me that as long as the mental health of our society continues to deteriorate, children will be in greater danger. It took me five years to become resilient enough to shoulder the increasing caseload, and I'm not sure even I can continue to handle it. I might suggest one small thing, however. Our social service educators must find a way to better prepare the young social workers coming out of school and into the profession for the first time. I don't recommend that they frighten these eager young people, but they must see that they are not naive when they start work. I've seen too many really promising young social workers shocked by the conditions they're thrust into at the very outset of their careers. We must better prepare them for the realities of the work they are undertaking.
GVT: Would it be reasonable to sum up your comments like this; Child welfare in America is getting worse every year and the burden of care is getting harder to bear.
CW: Let me say this before I let you go; Where there's a will, there's a way. Addressing these challenges requires a comprehensive approach that includes improving working conditions, providing mental health support, streamlining bureaucratic processes, increasing resources, and offering continued training opportunities. We have only to find the will to take these measures.