Hennepin County Medical Center - Local 977

Help – and Hope – for Child Protection Workers

Local 34’s Fintan Moore

The Legislature’s infusion of $52 million into county child-protection services has AFSCME case workers hoping that their days of coping with overwhelming caseloads soon will be a bad memory.

Counties large and small are moving quickly to beef up child-protection staffs, utilizing the two-year grant that Council 5 helped secure at the Capitol. For example, Scott County is adding 2 workers, St. Louis County 10, and Ramsey County 12.

Hennepin County is going above and beyond: It is combining $4.9 million a year in new state money with$3.6 million in new county money. The end result: 103 new positions.

Child-protection social workers say the additional support is desperately needed to drive down their caseloads and give them more time to do what they’re supposed to do: keep children safe and, if possible, keep families together.

Under current caseloads, “we do more and more crisis management,” says one child protection worker in Ramsey County Human Services Local 151. “The families we work with deserve more. But it’s increasingly difficult to advocate for the services our families need for optimal outcomes. And that makes it really challenging when you’re a social worker, right?”

[All the case workers interviewed from Ramsey County asked that their names not be used, because they fear retribution from management for speaking out.]

Responsibilities are emotionally draining

In general, child-protection workers get involved when the county receives a report of child neglect, maltreatment, or abuse. At the front end, workers assess whether the child will be safe remaining at home, or instead needs to be placed temporarily in foster care.

After the initial assessment, “ongoing” case managers work with the children, biological parents, and foster parents – ideally to resolve the problem that got the family involved with child protection in the first place. A family’s needs can span the spectrum: child care, financial or housing support, better parenting skills, tactics to cope with behavioral issues, or treatment for substance abuse or mental-health problems.

If a child is placed in foster care, state law requires social workers to follow court-supervised case plans to reunite the family. In worst-case scenarios, intervention fails, and the county moves to terminate parental rights and free the child up for adoption.

“We make life-and-death decisions on a daily basis,” says a second Local 151 member. “We make lifelong decisions that are going to impact a family, a child. That’s not something you take lightly. If you make the wrong decision, it’s on you, you know?”

“These things keep you up at night,” says the first Local 151 member. “It’s emotionally draining. Am I doing the right thing? What else can I do? And you need more time, not less time, to make those decisions.”

Caseloads soar far beyond recommended maximums

But more time is something social workers don’t have when their caseloads overwhelm them.

Counties often structure child protection programs differently, so direct comparisons of case worker responsibilities are not always possible. Caseload responsibilities are also different for assessment staff and “ongoing” case management staff.

But across the board, AFSCME members say caseloads essentially have doubled in the past few years. Earlier this year, the Governor’s Task Force on the Protection of Children recommended a maximum caseload of 10 for “ongoing” child-protection workers. All the AFSCME social workers interviewed say they and their co-workers usually carry caseloads above that – often way above that.

In Hennepin County, it is not unusual for case workers to have 20 cases or more. In Ramsey County, it’s typically 15-20. Even in Scott County, caseloads have increased from 6-8 at one time to 10-12, says Local 2440’s Meghan Beauvais. “The intensity of the caseload has increased. The ability to see families as frequently as we’d like has been affected,” Beauvais says.

Caseloads go up, time with families goes down

But the caseload numbers are only the tip of the iceberg. Social workers have to develop a case plan for each child and each parent. The numbers – and time commitments – can climb quickly if there are multiple children, multiple fathers, and multiple foster placements in each family.

In many cases, social workers are supposed to visit families weekly. But that often becomes physically impossible – especially when workers need to be in court, which keeps them out of the field for days at a time. In Ramsey County, the time crunch is complicated even further because some foster placements are outside the county – some as far away as Milaca and Moose Lake.

“You’re making these huge decisions that impact people’s lives and impact children,” a Local 151 case worker says.

“People expect the same service toward each family, despite the fact that you may have twice as many families,” says Brenda Louise, of Hennepin County Human Services Local 34. “It is extremely stressful.”

Time crunch has domino effect

Caseload volume is only one headache social workers have to deal with.

On their end of the equation, if they are unable to keep up with paperwork and other requirements, it has a spillover effect on “collaterals” – the judges, public defenders, guardians ad litem, and other professionals who are involved in a case. Being able to do only perfunctory record-keeping can also hurt how a case is ultimately resolved.

“The only thing the court knows about that family is what’s in my report,” says Local 34’s Fintan Moore. A court oversees more than 90 percent of his cases. “When I have time to write a more thorough report, the court can make a better decision based on more information. If I want the notes to be useful, I have to have the time to make sure they’re objective, reflective, and accurately reflect the family.”

On the other side of the equation, a shortage of supportive services means families may have to wait weeks to enroll in the programs that social workers believe best fit their needs.

Or, thanks to years of budget cuts, the families may not be able to get those services at all. That keeps children and parents separated longer, puts more strain on the families and the foster system, and makes successful family reunification more difficult, social workers say.

Working more, appreciated less

Then there’s the hostile media attention that seems to blame social workers for cases that go wrong.

“We’ve given up a lot and sacrifice a lot for the work that we do, with very little acknowledgement,” a third Local 151 social worker.

“You don’t even want to go into the newspaper, or read the online comments people make about you or your work,” another Local 151 member says. “When you know that you’re putting in everything, and it’s taking away from your own children and your own family, it’s frightening that the public sees us the way they do.”

Standards become impossible to meet

The frequency of contact with families isn’t the only thing that suffers. So can the quality of contact, AFSCME social workers say.

“I was once able to return calls regularly and see families regularly,” says Local 34’s Louise. “Now, they’re extremely frustrated – as am I – because it could be two or three days before I’m able to return a call. It’s disheartening.

“I used to be a good worker, the worker that returned calls. Even if I couldn’t always get a family what they needed, they at least knew that I heard them. And now I am that worker that doesn’t return calls. It feels horrible.”

“We’re doing the bare minimum so we can say we’re doing the work, and that has never been the work ethic that I’ve gone by,” says one Local 151 member.

Louise says she no longer has the time to prepare for visits as well as she would like to, and then focus as much as she would like to when she’s there. “I’m constantly thinking – I’ve got this much time. I need to get going to my next appointment. So I’m not really as able to be present with a family and listen to them.

“The really hard truth of it, too, is that in a lot of these families, the people are in pain. The children have been maltreated because of the trauma and the pain and the difficulty that their parents are experiencing. And I am not always – this is terrible to say – but I don’t always have time to listen to their pain and recommend things to help alleviate the pain, or even just have a conversation with them to help them with whatever issue that they have. So that’s a really big, frustrating piece,” Louise says.

How budget decisions play out in real life

Finally, case workers say, caseloads are just one symptom of the decline of good-paying jobs and what they see as a chronic underfunding of family services dating back to the Pawlenty administration.

“You hear people complaining about not wanting to pay taxes,” says Local 34’s Louise. “So, county workers have to be more efficient. We have to work smarter, we have to work harder, do more with less. OK. So, this is what the bone looks like when you’re down to the bone. And it’s just been really terrible.

Local 34’s Brenda Louise

“It really comes down to dollars and cents in some ways,” she says. “I know people don’t think about that – but each person in the community has some responsibility: How much is a child’s life worth?”

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