Child Welfare Bureaucracy Hell

Welfare110919_1_560 Whenever the local news covers the latest horrific story of child abuse, my first reaction is always to rant about the incompetent social workers. After reading this story in New York Magazine, my next rant won't be about the case workers. It will be about the incompetent system.

New York Magazine profiles child-welfare supervisor Chereece Bell who was fired after the latest horrific death. She also faces a four year prison sentence. She describes 12 hour work days and long case loads – an impossible job for anybody. 

The workload was so deep that case workers would take vacation weeks in order to catch up on the paperwork:

To try to keep the computer files on his cases up-to-date, Adams would sneak into the office on Sundays to work. But even that did not seem to be enough. So he did the only thing he could to carve out more time: put in for vacation. If you took a one-week vacation, your supervisor wouldn’t assign you any new cases in the two and a half days before you left, which meant you’d have that time to enter your old notes into the computer. Adams even went one step further and came into the office during his week off. “At the time, I didn’t realize that was why he was taking vacation,” Bell says. “It wasn’t until after all this happened that I realized that was only for him to catch up.”

 

 

29 thoughts on “Child Welfare Bureaucracy Hell

  1. We went through our initial foster parent training three years ago and our local offices have been under a hiring freeze (including having to just double up on caseloads to cover for workers on parental leave) and mandatory furloughs for that entire time. Things aren’t as bad as in NYC, but there are times when our social worker is not allowed to be in touch with us except for emergencies (or, um, if she doesn’t use official channels) and it’s scary and frustrating, though the workers we’ve dealt with directly have largely been great and had their priorities right.

  2. This is like the school teacher furlough days where they send out CYA memos forbidding teachers from working and threatening them with consequences if they do.
    I’m not naive enough to believe that unions always do the right thing, but I also think that protecting the rights of social workers and teachers and nurses and group home workers is an important tool in protecting the vulnerable populations they serve (independent of the protection of the workers themselves, which, is also an important goal).

  3. I worked as a child protection social worker for a brief time before grad school and, yeah, it’s one of the most thankless, stressful jobs out there. The thing is that most people don’t think about the child protection system very much until something goes very wrong and there’s the predictable outcry about the incompetent social workers. This is a convenient narrative because if it’s just the social workers then we don’t need to do things like, raise taxes to reform the system, pay people more, and hire more people to reduce case loads.
    Are there incompetent social workers out there? Of course, just as there are incompetent people in any occupation. But the overall problem isn’t the individual workers but a much larger problem that it is extremely hard to recruit and hire good people when you pay them terribly for an emotionally and physically exhausting job in the context of a dysfunctional system.

  4. Whenever I read one of those horrific stories about child abuse, I always rant about the monstrous wickedness of the liberals and progressives who created the dysfunctional, welfare-addicted culture that produces these cases.
    You can’t really solve these problems without addressing the root causes: single-parent families and a culture of entitlement. But, in the meantime, maybe that idiot Bloomberg and his progressive friends should spend a little less money on sodium warnings and bike lanes no one uses, and a little more on preventing the deaths of small children.

  5. y81: poverty and inequality also contribute to problems that involve social workers. This is not one that you can merely drop at the door of liberals and progressives.

  6. The insanity of the NYC bureaucracy was created long before Bloomberg. Decades of both Republican and Democratic leaders have jerry-rigged a system together, where departments don’t talk to each other. It is crippled by a poorly funded technology team. The department heads are always political appointees, who often have never done the work that their ground level workers do. They are frequently rotated and care more about their next appointment than producing quality results.

  7. “You can’t really solve these problems without addressing the root causes: single-parent families and a culture of entitlement. ”
    OK, I’ll bite. How do you address the root causes of single-parent families & the culture of entitlement? I’m guessing you’re not advocating forcing women to terminate their pregnancies if they’re not married. So, what steps should we take as society to address these root causes?
    What changes could Bloomberg make in bike lanes in NYC, and how would this provide money to support the foster care system?
    I can’t figure out how much the bike lanes cost, but the sodium warning campaign apparently costs 370K (and I’m not offsetting any theoretical cost-savings from increased health, since those can’t be linked directly). The foster care system in NYC costs something like 700 million on foster care services.
    Or is this lament an excuse to do nothing or cut something (like bike lanes)?

  8. You get the government you pay for, and it is clear that the people are not willing to pay more for foster care services. Based on the last Republican debate, many people would prefer to let people die rather than spend money to save them. I would suggest that this is not a problem with liberals or progressives; it is a problem with our society when a significant portion of people truly don’t care about the welfare of anyone but themselves.

  9. “But the overall problem isn’t the individual workers but a much larger problem that it is extremely hard to recruit and hire good people when you pay them terribly for an emotionally and physically exhausting job in the context of a dysfunctional system.”
    I once heard a woman call into a personal finance show. She was a social worker earning $40k a year (it sounded like that was toward the high end of the pay scale), but the graduate degree (and maybe undergraduate, not sure) required for her position had set her back $80k. That’s a pretty big mismatch between pay and required credentials. I know there are loan forgiveness thingies available after a certain number of years of government work, but it would still be quite a struggle to pay on the $80k a year while earning $40k. Also, the high level of credentials often required for social work is perhaps unreasonable in view of the burnout rate–like inner city teaching, it may not be a job that we can reasonably expect that people can spend their whole lives doing well.
    One of my tough-minded aunties spent 17 years working as a parole officer for juvenile delinquents and doing stuff with potential juvenile delinquents (with some adoption reports and guardian ad litem stuff on the side). I’m sure she did a good job, but when she was done, she didn’t look back.
    “…but the sodium warning campaign apparently costs 370K (and I’m not offsetting any theoretical cost-savings from increased health, since those can’t be linked directly).”
    Sodium is a traditional bugbear, but the latest I’ve heard is that it isn’t actually that dangerous.

  10. “You get the government you pay for…”
    MH?
    I personally get the feeling that people in places like California are paying for way better government than they are actually getting.
    I was reading that article in the Smithsonian on the Finnish educational miracle. It’s a regular socialist paradise and they provide every single imaginable goody (including food and taxi service), and it costs $3k a year per kid less than in the US ($8k versus our $11k).

  11. There are ways to structure the system to retain people and ensure that the needs of the children are met. The urban system I worked in had two levels of social workers: child social workers that had to have a Bachelor’s degree, had more cases, but fewer responsibilities and are paid in the low $30k and parent social workers with Master’s degrees with fewer cases but with much more responsibility and a starting pay of around $50k. Each social worker on a case has their own supervisor so there are at least four people involved in any given case. Many of the parent social workers are former child social workers who took advantage of the tuition assistance offered to complete a Master’s part-time.
    So, I think there is room and a need for both lower-skilled and higher-skilled class of employee in this line of work. I use “skill” here purposefully, a MSW is often a very useful, practical degree with a specialized type of training.
    (But, really, don’t spend $80k on a degree that you can get assistance to complete part-time.)

  12. You get the government that you pay for subject to the constraints of history, politics, and demographics.
    During the past spate of heavy rain, four people died on a main street during a flash flood. The same flood covered a police substation’s parking lot, but that lot was empty before the water hit. Apparently, somebody saw the warning and knew enough that flooding was likely, but didn’t see fit to try to block the street or couldn’t find the person with the authority to block the street.

  13. You know, I’m first in line to talk about the problem of hubristic overreach by well-meaning people, but get the fuck real here, people. When someone wants to say, “Oh my, liberals and progressives created this unwieldy bureaucracy”, there are really only two things they could have in mind as alternatives. One: no bureaucracy, a system of essentially private, ad hoc fosterage and abandonment. Which is pretty much the Western status quo prior to 1750 or so. Or two: they think they have a better bureaucracy in mind, a better system. In which case, shut up with the complaints and lay it out for us.
    If you want to complain about the “deaths of small children” and imply that someone should have stopped them, your options just narrowed to one: you think the second, not the first. In which case, again, lay it on us. What’s the plan? If you don’t have one and think that the Magic Bureaucratic Santa Claus should stuff a better system down your chimney this Christmas, you might be better off just sticking with the “let the chips fall where they may, children die and suffer as they will, hope that people morally improve someday”. You might be more in tune with the tenor of the times any way, since we seem to be giving up on progress as a concept these days.

  14. What I have in mind is a bureaucracy and a culture that doesn’t valorize single motherhood. The plain fact is, the negative correlation between the presence of a married father in the house and child abuse is overwhelming. But liberals only believe in statistics when it comes to smoking, not when it comes to family structure.

  15. Anecdotes are treacherous. Still, they have power. I had a period as an ambulance driver, in Oakland CA, and one of my calls was to take a 15-year-old to the hospital to have her baby.
    She told me she had planned the whole thing, was very pleased, it would get her out of her mother’s house and rules, she would get her own place to live.
    Whatever system you have, it should be one which doesn’t make a fifteen-year-old see pregnancy as a desired path forward. You also want that kid to have a decent path and chance in life. I don’t know what the Magic Bureaucratic Santa Clause has in his sack, but I would very much like SOMETHING with better incentives.
    I also very much fear that things will get worse rather than better: there is less and less rewarding work for poorly educated people to do, which moves the needle towards the dole.
    I took a class once from Michael Dukakis, who has grappled with this kind of thing for a living (!) and he said, roughly, there are some folks who are not going to make it on their own, and you have to take care of them. I think he is right, but you also have to not make it fun.

  16. I love the idea that valorization by bureaucracy is what creates single motherhood in the United States. Or, since you’re big on statistics, that single motherhood per se is the problem at a historical moment where it’s clear that having two partners in a long-term relationship in a household is less and less linked to marriage.
    Young mothers with no partner (or an unreliable one) who are already living in poverty are indeed a big problem, and they’re the problem that our overstretched child welfare bureaucracy is primarily struggling to cope with.
    The child welfare system did not create that problem. I suppose you could believe in magic causality and think that if you abolished that bureaucracy tomorrow suddenly all those teenage mothers living in poverty would say, “Oh, no safety nets and incentives, I think I’ll find me a man now and live in matrimony!”
    Cultural problems are hard problems. Human beings are messy and complex. A statistical pattern does not contain within it an answer that will resolve that pattern into non-existence.
    Point me to works of expressive culture that you think directly “valorize” being an unmarried 15-year old living in poverty. You won’t find them. So you’ll shift and say, “Well, it’s about the general valorization of sexuality,” or “It’s the general drift away from marriage as an institution”. But you know, educated people from middle-class backgrounds are far less likely to have a child at 14, live without a partner, and be in poverty (the latter by definition) and yet they live in a culture where sexuality is valorized and marriage less important. How about that! This is turning out to be pretty tricky after all, maybe.
    I find it especially weird when people who are identifying as conservative and who slam liberals for whatever it is they allegedly caused this week then turn around and:
    a) believe people to be extremely simple in their motivations and easily manipulated into profoundly important human decisions by changing incentives, and that said changes always lead to the intended consequences;
    b) expect the government to implement these incentives which will change people;
    c) also expect the government to control the content of the wider culture.
    I thought that was the liberal thing to do, you know?

  17. Stimulus idea: We should find an unemployed guy, blame him for child abuse, and then provide him six unemployed lawyers to argue in his defense.

  18. My mother is a benefits worker. There has been a hiring freeze in her state for a couple of years. She currently has a caseload 3X the number of what they were told was ideal. She has not taken a vacation in two years. She is scared to because she knows how much further she will be behind when she comes back. She also know that there are people that won’t eat if isn’t there to process their paperwork. Her co-workers are in the same situation. They take a 3 day weekend here and there and keep slogging along. It’s crazy.

  19. “The plain fact is, the negative correlation between the presence of a married father in the house and child abuse is overwhelming.”
    Polygamy? as a potential solution? Who valorizes single motherhood? Even “single mothers by choice” are almost always by no other choice; most women would prefer to be married to the mother of their child, to have them be a supportive provider; I’m pretty sure the data show that, too.
    Now Dave raises another point: “Whatever system you have, it should be one which doesn’t make a fifteen-year-old see pregnancy as a desired path forward.”
    I want such a system, too. But what I see is that the reasons that a fifteen year old would see single motherhood as a desired path point to the utter undesirability of all the other paths. No amount of government intervention makes that 15 year old’s path “fun.” And, being the good liberal that I am, I do think that incentives contribute to behavioral choices. But, I see the disincentives to single motherhood at 15 being strong enough already (even with what minimal social supports we do offer); I’d rather concentrate on making the incentives to *not* be a single mother at 15 stronger.

  20. But you know, educated people from middle-class backgrounds are far less likely to have a child at 14, live without a partner, and be in poverty (the latter by definition) and yet they live in a culture where sexuality is valorized and marriage less important. How about that! This is turning out to be pretty tricky after all, maybe.
    That is true, but I have to deal with all sort of restrictions on my life that were designed (or at least public justified) to keep the less educated from causing problems. Stupid liquor control board.

  21. Anyway, it strikes me as very reasonable to think that the old system involved too much gender inequality and repression to be continued on grounds of justice, but it does not seem reasonable to deny that social changes in the past fifty years are at least partially responsible for the increase in single births.
    And to argue that a group selected at least partially on the basis of being able to manage delayed gratificatoin has children that are better able to delay gratification strkes me as beside the point.

  22. Dang, Wendy, all I have is popcorn.
    And all I was going to say was that if y81 and the people and policies y81 has supported here had shown the slightest effectiveness in going after root causes, then there might be a reason to entertain that argument. But they haven’t, so there isn’t. Next.

  23. Actually, if you check out “Promises I can Keep,” a sociologist who has, you know, actually studied single motherhood in the ghetto found out that, in comparison to their cohort, single mothers were BETTER off than single women with no kids. They were 1) more likely to be employed or in school, and 2) much less likely to commit crime and 3) much less likely to be addicted to drugs or alcohol. Basically, we have a system where a very large group of people have absolutely no chance of ever climbing out of abject poverty, which leads to a sort of disaffected nihilism. If the best you can absolutely hope for is to work at McDonald’s until they fire you for being too old, crime and substance abuse start to look really appealing. Having a child, aka, a human being you are responsible for, actually gives your life a purpose and thus a reason to try and do better. It turns out comparatively negative things happen to middle class girls when they have babies as teenagers, but not really poor women. (Or I suppose, really rich ones who can just hire someone else to raise it, aka Bristol Palin.)
    Also, I laugh at the single motherhood theory, because in Sweden out of wedlock births make up about 70% of births there, and yet crime, teen pregnancy, drug abuse are all much lower than they are in the US, and educational attainment is much higher. If there was a direct correlation, you would expect these all to be higher in Sweden, no?

  24. On the subject of social services, I was just thinking about where America really spends a lot of money feeding and housing and educating and making work for poor people, and I realized it’s prison. Over 1% of Americans are in prison (and another 2% are on parole), and I think the cost of incarceration runs about 50K a year per person. It’s funny that we’re not willing to invest that sort of money in people in social services before prison, but we’re more than happy to shell out for them after they’ve done something detrimental to society. Imagine if we spent that kind of money on social workers and education?

  25. but we’re more than happy to shell out for them after they’ve done something detrimental to society.
    This was kind of the deal when Midnight Basketball was an issue. I remember thinking that it sounds like a good idea, but the suggestion of extortion (i.e. pay these kids not to steal shit from your car) really seemed like a poor strategy for winning a political debate.

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