Unions Social Worker Awareness Campaign
What can we do about the crisis in child welfare? To answer this question we conducted a focus group with child welfare workers and spoke with community groups, childrens advocacy groups, and foster youth about what they think the problems of the system are and what message we need to get out to the public to help solve the problem. The discussions were part of the social worker awareness campaign, which is planning to produce a traveling exhibit to educate the public about social workers and child welfare. The awareness campaign is a project of the Local 535 state executive boards Childrens Services Committee.
The message from talking with all these groups is that social work is about a relationship between the worker and client. The turnover in social workers and the inability of social workers to spend quality time with their clients because of high caseloads is robbing children and families of the potential for healing. Children and families are suffering. The present situation is unacceptable and it will take a community effort to solve the problem.
Los Angeles County Childrens Planning Council
We spoke with Yolie Flores Aguilar, executive director of the Los Angeles Childrens Planning Council, which represents a coalition of the major public and private child welfare colaborative advocacy groups in Los Angeles County. The group has created several documents on child welfare that summarize many of the problems. According to the councils position paper, there need to be drastic changes in the current system. The council emphasizes that children in the system need to have a stable relationship with one social worker. The first priority needs to be keeping families together. And this means, among other things, increasing services such as substance abuse treatment to parents. If a child has to be removed, then a permanent home should be found as soon as possible. When foster children turn 18, the system shouldnt abandon them, but must provide adequate transitional services. Finally, to build healthy families we need to invest in healthy communities.
California Youth Connection
California Youth Connection is an advocacy group of current and former foster youth, from 14 to 24 years of age. The group has 22 chapters statewide that advocate and lobby for foster youth. One of their main issues is that the systems relationship and obligation to the youth end when a foster youth turns 18. There is no longer a legal relationship with the foster parents. As a result, many youth feel abandoned. Independent living skills and transitional programs can accommodate only a small number of these former foster children. Thirty percent of foster youth spend some time homeless after they leave foster homes, and 50% of the inhabitants of homeless shelters in Los Angeles were once dependents of the court. CYCs present legislative priorities include legislation to permit youth to stay in foster care until age 21, legislation to increase transitional housing, and a foster care bill of rights. A foster care bill of rights has been passed twice by the legislature, but was vetoed by former Governor Pete Wilson.
We spoke with CYC foster youth Kenny Brown, Trinity
Wallace, and Adriana Bermudas. They discussed their personal experiences
with the system and what they feel needs to change. They stressed the
importance of the relationship between the social worker and the client.
Brown and Wallace stated that they felt so abused by the bureaucratic
nature of the front end of the system that by the time they were placed
in foster care, it was hard for them to believe that a social worker really
cared for them and their families.
For Wallace, keeping her relationship with her
siblings was one of the most important things in her life.
Adriana Bermudas, who was abandoned by her mother,
talked about the need for someone to really be there for her. She had
one social worker with whom she bonded, but after five years she suddenly
had a different worker, with no explanation, further increasing her feelings
of abandonment. She found out many years later that the first worker went
out on stress leave.
Bermudas described a series of foster care placements.
Some of the placements were good, but most were with foster parents who
either were only in it for the money or had their own personal problems
that prevented their having an authentic relationship with Bermudas. The
biggest needs, according to Bermudas, are to feel that the worker really
cares and to have a consistent relationship.
Another issue the youth brought up was the need
for everyone in the system, social workers, judges, and attorneys, to
work together, instead of blaming each other for the problems.
Healthy African American Families Project
Problems: Social workers are seen as adversaries not advocates. Sanders, who prefaced her remarks with expressions of respect for the job social workers do, related an incident involving a family in her congregation that was in trouble. Everyone we asked told us, Dont call DCFS unless you have no choice left. The communitys view is that social workers are their adversaries. She then related the following perceived criticisms: that social workers dont tell families what is going on and dont understand the community and dont understand the resources or lack of resources available to parents in the community.
Solutions: The public needs to see positive images of social workers. Jones, who grew up in foster care herself in the 1940s and 1950s, suggests that to counter the image of outsider, an awareness campaign should feature photographs that show the social worker in the home, touching and interacting with the children, demonstrating that the social worker has a relationship to the family. She also suggested photographs of social workers interacting with the community and taking children on outings.
Jones also recommends stories that show that social workers can have humor and nice, feel-good stories of children being returned to parents and about families rebuilding their lives.
Social Worker Focus Groups
We met with Santa Clara social workers Linda Castaldi, Sonny Burgan, Dennis Wyatt, Javier Ramirez, Deborah Ackerman-Dohse, Steve Rosenburg, Kathy Ashizawa, and Janet Atkins, and with Los Angeles social workers Geoff Stephen and Judith Walter. Union field staff Wren Bradley and Danny Ramos assisted with setting up the focus groups and took part in the discussion. This group suggests the project should make the following points:
Kids in the system are everywhere. One worker points out that there are seven foster kids in her caseload who are in her daughters class. They [the systems kids] are rubbing shoulders in the same classrooms and on the same soccer leagues as everyone else. We are all in it together.
Abused kids can grow up to become healthy and well-functioning adults. Workers suggest telling the stories of the kids they have helped and how they have seen kids come into the system horribly traumatized from abuse and then heal and blossom through nurturing relationships.
Even perpetrators can become adequate parents. An understanding, therapeutic relationship, therapy services, and hard work can transform even predators. Workers recall how, by being objective and not having preconceived notions, they have changed the patterns of sexual predators and transformed them into adequate parents who could raise their kids free from their past patterns.
Many parents just need some basic services and economic help. Social workers help many people who are good parents, but have just fallen on hard times economically.
Timing is everything. Social workers need to take advantage of the window of opportunity when the client is ready and able to make a life change. But if social workers are overworked, they may not have the time to devote to that client at that moment. Social workers need the time to help, and it is harder to be empathetic and compassionate when rushed and frantic.
Best Practices: The child welfare workload
study conducted by the California legislature under SB 2030 reported twice
as many social workers are needed to perform all the tasks required of
social workers. However, it is not enough to make the present system twice
as big. Social work agencies are trying out many programs that integrate
social work solutions with family and community resources. Social workers
are trying team approaches with family, friends, neighbors, and the community
helping parents in need. Other programs feature community workers that
try to target at-risk youth and intervene before it is too late. But all
these best practices require small caseloads.