Barry Chaffkin training members of the 2013 Children's Corps class.

Photo by: Courtesy Heather-Ann Schaeffner

Barry Chaffkin training members of the 2013 Children’s Corps class.

Across the country an estimated 20 to 40 percent of child welfare caseworkers leave their jobs every year while 90 percent of agencies report difficulty hiring and retaining qualified staff, with devastating results for children and families.

One 2005 study from Milwaukee found that children entering foster care who had only one caseworker achieved permanency three quarters of the time (they returned home, were adopted, or found other permanent homes, usually with relatives), while those with two workers achieved permanency in fewer than a fifth of cases. Children unlucky enough to have six or seven caseworkers were almost assured to become permanent wards of the state.

Unending work was the number one reason caseworkers gave for leaving their jobs, according to a 2006 report by Cornerstones for Kids and the Humane Services Workforce Initiative, but half of former workers said they were also motivated to leave because of feelings of inefficacy, demoralization and helplessness.

In 2011, Barry Chaffkin, a veteran staffer of foster care agencies in New York City and co-founder of the not-for-profit Fostering Change for Children, got together with Vivianne DeMilly, a long-time administrator for New York City’s Children’s Services, to help stop the flood of caseworkers leaving New York City’s child welfare system, which had a 40 percent annual turnover rate the year they started.

When they formed Children’s Corps, Chaffkin and DeMilly thought they could find the right kind of people and provide them enough support that they’d want to persevere. Here Chaffkin talks about what it’s like to be a caseworker, why so many people leave the job, and what his organization is doing to support workers so that they’ll stay:

Q: Can you describe the nuts and bolts of what it’s like to be a caseworker in this city?

A: It’s probably one of the most challenging jobs there is.
Starting salaries range from the low $30,000s to the low $40,000s, but I don’t know anybody who works from 9 to 5. Because at the end of day, if there’s a child who has some uncontrollable behavior who needs to be placed in a psychiatric hospital, or there’s an emergency situation and you have to move a child’s foster home, you may sit there till 1 in the morning until you find a bed. Every day is very different, and that can be draining.

Caseworkers may also feel helpless because they have so much work that it’s hard to do all they should for any particular family.

New York City has done a good job lowering caseloads at some of its agencies, to an average of 10 to 12 families per worker, and they are working on lowering that number further. But at other agencies, caseworkers still have higher caseloads, and every day, caseworkers have to balance meeting the needs of parents, children and foster parents, and they can also spend all day in family court, sometimes several days out of the month.

On top of that, caseworkers have to keep the system happy with voluminous reports, for the city, for the state, for the courts, and with referrals for evaluations and services. [The 2006 New York State Child Welfare Workload Study found that more than a third of caseworkers’ case-related time was taken up with paperwork, while less than a fifth of it was spent in face-to-face contact with families.] People come into the job thinking they’re going to help children, and then are overwhelmed with the enormity of the reports and court orders due and the daily need to deal with so much stress at so many levels.

Caseworkers can also face limited resources for the families on their caseload.
They may need to wait for a drug program, or for a therapist who speaks the same language as their client. Family court is another place where there’s often a holdup that can delay cases for months or longer. If a child is in care for a year and then goes home, the system may feel like it has done its job. But for a child, every day separated from mom and dad is an eternity. If a child is 4 years old, one year in that child’s conscious memory is forever. It can be hard for caseworkers to watch the impact that delays have on families.

Caseworkers are exposed to other traumas as well. Children who have been badly hurt. Horrible sexual abuse stories. Parents’ addictions that are so strong they just can’t overcome them in the timeframe child welfare offers. We teach our caseworkers to think of it like cancer. Some people have cancer that goes away, and some people die from cancer. That’s not a reflection on the person. Still, it can be hard to work with parents and then have to terminate their legal rights to their children. It’s hard to understand for people not involved in the system.

All of this is easier when caseworkers have supportive supervisors, especially because most caseworkers come into the job with little to no training to help them understand the traumas they are exposed to. But when a supervisor is too inexperienced or under too much pressure to be supportive, then it can be a very lonely job.

Q: What is the financial cost of caseworker turnover and what is the human cost?

A: There are some good studies that suggest it costs the system something like $20,000 every time it has to replace a worker. But I think the human cost is more significant.

For kids, it’s often another feeling of abandonment. The caseworker may say, “Trust me, I’m the one who will stay.” And then they’re gone.

For parents, it’s the feeling that people keep dropping the ball, because it takes time for new caseworkers to learn the job and get up to speed on all their cases. Parents can feel that their case isn’t moving forward, and that can make them feel very hopeless that they’ll ever bring their children home.

It also takes time to build trust. A worker doesn’t just show up and say, “Hi, I’m your worker,” and a parent says, “This is what’s going on in my house.” On the surface, mom may be dealing with addiction or a lot of anger. It may take a long time before mom feels comfortable saying, “I was sexually abused as kid, and that’s why I run from the pain.” People just don’t disclose those kinds of things in a few months, especially when they have one worker, and then another, and then another. We have parents in the system for years who have never told what they were really affected by.

One of our workers worked with a mom who was agoraphobic. The worker knew that you can’t help her unless you deal with the agoraphobia first. But a typical worker might send a letter to the house telling mom she needs to attend drug rehab. Then when she doesn’t go, the worker assumes that mom is non-compliant. That may be the beginning of a downward spiral that leads to mom ultimately losing her children permanently.

Q: What does Children’s Corps do to help caseworkers stay at the job, and how successful has it been?

A: For the last three years we have selected a group of new workers (23, 26 and 37 workers respectively) and placed them at child welfare agencies around the city. Then we’ve provided them support and training.

We have a rigorous interview process because we’re looking for people who have perseverance—what we call the grit factor—and are truly non-judgmental. We’re looking for someone who will say, “OK, you’re someone who uses drugs. You’re someone who’s been in prison. What might have happened in your life that caused those struggles?” Lastly, we’re looking for people who are flexible in their thinking. Let’s say a foster mother can’t bring the kids to visits because she’s in one borough and the mom is in a different borough. We want to hire people who will think: Maybe the foster mom’s daughter can bring them, or maybe you can get the mom and the foster mom to meet halfway. We’re looking for people who can find solutions.

Next we offer our workers four weeks of training. We have panels with parents, foster parents and youth because we want our workers to hear from real people who were affected by the system before they ever go out into the field. When parents do open up, we train our workers to respond in a way that communicates: “It’s great that you could share that. How can I help you?” not “Gotcha!” Afterward, we continue to meet as a group once a month and we provide our participants with professional mentors who they can turn at any time.

Some workers don’t need much support, because they’re getting good supervision at their agencies. For other people that support is critical. Hearing a mom or dad blame you for everything wrong with their life can be hard. Other times, caseworkers may be working on a case involving sexual abuse when they were sexually abused, or addiction when they themselves grew up with a mom or dad that was addicted. Some of our participants were crying on the phone to us every day in that first year. They would have left if they hadn’t had that support. But what we find is that over time the workers that stay become more and more skilled at asking those deeper questions and finding out what a family really needs.

With our first cohort, our retention rate after one year was 86-87 percent [compared to a 60 percent retention rate citywide]. After two years, that rate went down to 71 percent. But of those, exactly half stayed for a third year, and the other half are in some form of grad school geared toward working in the system.

Q: Some critics say the only way to really improve the system is to dismantle it, but that’s clearly not what you’re trying to do. How would you assess how well the child welfare system serves at-risk families?

A: I’m not Pollyannaish about the system. If you ask me how we could improve things, I’d say we could spend more money not only on prevention but on prevention before prevention, on poverty, on neighborhoods, on keeping kids out of the system.

But we have almost 400,000 kids in foster care nationwide. We can’t close the system down today and say, “Let’s start over.” We believe that if we start with the frontline worker, we can dramatically change the rate that children find permanency. We just can’t keep letting children languish in foster care because we haven’t figured out how to do that.