Support over the last three years from the Ventura County Board of Supervisors and the County Executive Officer to add more than 50 new case-carrying child welfare social worker positions has enabled the Human Services Agency’s Children & Family Services department to become more effective in preserving and strengthening families.
Children & Family Services social workers partner with other government and community service providers, families, relatives, and foster parents to help create safe, supportive environments for children who have experienced – or who are at risk of experiencing – abuse and neglect.
The more time that social workers are able to dedicate to each vulnerable family, the more support that each family will have in addressing the issues and building the skills that are necessary to keep their family intact.
As allegations of child abuse and neglect in Ventura County increased over the past several years, social workers’ caseloads rose steadily, leaving less time for social workers to engage in the type of robust social work that they are trained to perform.
“When caseloads are high, we focus on ensuring children’s safety, but we don’t always have time to make that extra phone call regarding a referral to a supportive service, or to hold a family meeting to learn what strengths the family has,” said Judy Webber, Deputy Director for Children & Family Services. “When social workers are able to spend more time with each family,” Webber continued, “they can help parents get the resources and supports they need. If a child can go home to mom and dad safely after six months in foster care instead of 12 months, we’ve got a stronger family and a healthier community.”
Now that Children & Family Services has on-boarded new case-carrying social workers, worker caseloads have been reduced by 20-40% depending on the specific social work function. The typical work day for a child welfare social worker is now filled with more meaningful interactions with families, more thoughtful case planning, and more creative thinking about how to reach a child or family who is struggling to stay on course.
Veteran child welfare social worker Taryn Massey commented, “I became a social worker to help families in need. When our caseloads were high, we were just triaging – putting band-aids on bigger problems. In order for social workers to do their jobs effectively, we need time in which to do so. With lower caseloads, we can give families the time and attention they need and deserve, which ultimately leads to their best chance for success.”
Importantly, increased social worker staffing has enabled Children & Family Services to reestablish time-intensive “teaming” processes that provide a forum for social workers, mental health professionals, parents, family supporters and others to team up to explore options for keeping children safe with their parents and out of foster care, if possible.
Jose DeLaCruz, a social worker who has facilitated multiple teaming meetings over the past few months, stated, “I see that this is working. When we take time to sit down and talk to everyone who really cares about the family, we can sometimes work out a plan to give the family the support they need. We don’t want to remove a child from his or her parents if there’s a good, safe alternative. If we can avoid that kind of trauma to the child and help the parents improve their parenting skills, we need to take time to explore that.”
Even when children do enter the foster care system, lower caseloads can translate into more time for social workers to locate relatives who may be able to care for children temporarily while their biological parents are participating in treatment programs. Engaging relative caregivers can often ensure that siblings are kept together rather than placed in separate foster homes, and can give children greater security during a very stressful time.
Furthermore, lower caseloads can give social workers more time to make back-up plans that can be called into play to help a child if the original plan for housing, schooling, or other critical needs does not work as expected. Lower caseloads can also mean that social workers have more time to help parents remove barriers to complying with court-ordered treatment plans so that they can maintain visitation with their children.
Moreover, social workers who are given sufficient time to do their jobs are also less likely to burn out, which can lead to staff turnover and disruption to children and families as cases are reassigned to other workers and continuity is lost.
“The most important resource we have to offer to vulnerable children and their families is our staff,” stated Webber. “We’re now better positioned to help protect children by strengthening families.”