Making Change: Care Today, Gone Tomorrow

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Call a private foster care agency these days and you may hear an unsettling option on the voice mail: Press one if you’re looking for work. With turnover up to 40 percent a year and vacancy rates as high as 26 percent, agencies in search of social workers are desperate–even to the point of recruiting callers on the off chance they’d take a job as a caseworker.

Simply put, the issue is money. Private agencies, which serve 90 percent of children in foster care, offer as little as $25,000 a year for a job that easily eats up 50 hours each week. Foster care isn’t the only social service job that’s facing high turnover–mental health agencies hover near 50 percent, according to a study by the Coalition for Voluntary Mental Health Agencies, and other social service sectors follow the same grim pattern.

For anyone who doubts that good-hearted social workers would leave their jobs over a few thousand dollars, the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies (COFCCA), a trade association for private, nonprofit foster care agencies, surveyed workers who quit. They named pay as their number one reason for switching jobs, with supervision coming in a distant second. In fact, many moved on to the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, which offers $10,000 more for essentially the same jobs.

But despite ceaseless lobbying, agency directors say they’re powerless to raise salaries. Instead, they’re putting their hope in that distant second, supervision–and an idea with a certain gloomy appeal: that stressed-out social workers, facing ever-higher caseloads and ever-lower pay, could use social workers themselves. And where better to find them than among their own ranks–their supervisors, to be exact? Since more money for social work doesn’t seem to be on the state legislature’s horizon, the thinking goes, train supervisors–usually social workers themselves–to use their clinical social work skills to emotionally support and mentor their own staff. Best of all, it sounds like it shouldn’t cost a dime.

Business consultants urge supervisors to see themselves as mentors, job coaches, even social workers for their own staff. “Supervisors always think the person they’re helping is the clients,” says Larry Mack, a consultant for Kriya Associates in Queens. “They have to look at helping their own staff, too.”

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Lianne Archer, a social worker at the Pleasantville Cottage residential treatment center in Dobbs Ferry, enjoys her job and cares about the kids she works with. “Kids leave and then they’ll call and say, ‘I love you,'” says Archer. “It’s really satisfying thinking I might make a difference.” But even more important is her relationship with her supervisor, which she calls “almost therapeutic.”

“I can tell my supervisor anything,” says Archer, who has been at her job only a year. “There’s so much to deal with, and you need somewhere to put it.”

New social workers like Archer need a way to process the trauma they’re exposed to every day, says Lisa Furst, assistant director of the therapy provider Center for Barrier-Free Living. In foster care, workers field everything from ruthless bureaucracy to draining confrontations with clients–often to see months of hard work wiped out by uncooperative families or functionaries. Unfortunately, supervisors can themselves be part of the problem: In the bureaucratic hell of direct social service, bad managers–incompetent or simply burned out themselves–are as ubiquitous as government forms.

It’s too bad, because a quasi-therapeutic relationship with a supervisor or a support group can help new workers break down how they’re feeling. Otherwise, they’re likely to experience secondary post-traumatic stress: feeling isolated, antisocial and numb to others’ feelings, having anxiety dreams about clients, dreading work and reading danger into every situation. “It’s very common that if you have that amount of trauma, you’ll check out,” says Naomi Lynch, director of training at COFCCA.

Furst recommends that agencies set aside time each week or month to focus on staff trauma, training the staff to recognize the symptoms and encouraging them to talk about specifics–which particular cases they shut themselves off to, what exactly they are dreaming at night. If a social worker is thinking about a case constantly, Furst suggests that supervisors assess the situation one-on-one.

But even these cheap-sounding fixes cost money. Counseling workers takes them off the job, forcing the very colleagues who are supposed to mentor them to pick up the slack. And asking overburdened supervisors to add extra duties doesn’t work, says consultant Robert Legge; vacancies already pile too much work on supervisors for them to act like therapists, mentors and job trainers. He suggests that agencies invest in paying experienced workers a bonus to mentor.

The foster care system is taking baby steps toward improving training–but, ironically, not in the private agencies, where turnover is most rampant. Beginning this fall, ACS will pay five organizations to train all its new foster care workers and supervisors in the Common Core, a training program already used upstate that teaches basic casework and supervisory skills. The 10-week program, which eventually should include a set of courses for mid-career caseworkers and supervisors, combines 20 days in a classroom with “junior” caseloads and on-the-job training. ACS is spending $12 million on the program.

In private agencies without that kind of cash, supervisors find scant resources for giving staff a little extra support. Though it may seem like basic good management, extra time to care for staff is out of reach for most casework supervisors, who often have heavy caseloads of their own. Supervisors who honestly want to make it easier on their burned-out staff find they have to do it on their own.

As much as she enjoys her job, Archer is already predicting she won’t stay in the foster care system long. “They work people hard and there’s not a lot of compensation,” she says. “It’s frustrating. I’ll burn out.”