A Critical Look at the Child Welfare System
Caseworker Training


An investigation of child abuse or neglect may have far reaching implications for children and their families. Decisions must be made as to whether or not a case is founded, whether children should be removed from their home, and as to what services should be provided to the family. What kind of training should a Child Protective Services caseworker have to aid in making such crucial decisions?

"You need a skilled professional to do what is a very complicated job," says Mark Hardin, director of foster care and family preservation for the American Bar Association. "There should be competitive testing and training, like you'd see at a police academy."[1]

Former Child Protective Services caseworker Paulla Garcia agrees. "In a police academy, they give you real training before they put you out in the field," says Garcia, adding that nothing like that was provided to her when she first joined the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

Instead, her training consisted of half a week spent reading policy manuals, after which she was assigned to follow some of the more "seasoned" caseworkers in the field.

Thankfully, Garcia had previous training as a social worker, and mental health interviewing experience to help guide her. She also had a background in child abuse triage, having worked in a pediatric clinic.

"I knew very early on I would not learn much from my 'seasoned' co-workers," says Garcia. "They had poor skills."[2]

The situation is not unique to Arizona. In New York City, caseworkers receive only twenty days of training, most of which focuses not on child development but on filling out forms and other paperwork tasks, a recent legal action charges.

"As a result, caseworkers are wholly unprepared to make critical assessments, to provide and access necessary services, or to work with children and families," charges the advocacy group Children's Rights, Inc.[3]

Elsewhere, a panel of experts in the field of child welfare assembled to study the operations of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services in the wake of a lawsuit against the agency. The panel found that: "DCFS caseworkers are uninformed or misinformed about internal resources and procedures of DCFS, as well as about DCFS philosophy and job performance expectations."

The panel also found caseworkers lacking in the essential skills of family assessment; service planning; family intervention techniques; child development; distinguishing the differences between poverty and neglect; and in their understanding of the legal rights and entitlements of the families and wards they served.[4]

"Contrary to public opinion, the majority of CPS workers are not trained social workers," write Professors of social work Lela Costin, Howard Karger and David Stoesz. They note that reductions in the minimum educational standards for public service jobs, including child protective services positions, have become a national trend.

Costin and colleagues point to a national study in which staff development directors in 27 states were asked about minimum educational requirements for child welfare caseworkers. Respondents reported that none of those states required a social work degree for an entry-level position in child welfare.

Nor would supervisory staff necessarily be better prepared. In a study of front-line supervisors, it was found that while some had many years of experience, barely one-third held graduate degrees in social work.[5]

The American Public Welfare Association indicates that one quarter of states surveyed do not require a college degree as a prerequisite for becoming a Child Protective Services caseworker, and less than half train workers before they take on cases.

Failures can be glaringly tragic, an Associated Press investigation of the child welfare system concludes. And while training is essential, the reality is that "undertrained and hard-pressed workers make tough decisions, pressured by time and limited resources. The easiest decision may be to temporarily remove a child from his or her home."[6]

In Vermont, Child Protective Services came under close scrutiny during the 1995 National Governor's Conference meeting, in Burlington. A forum held during the Conference drew attention to the need for reform of Child Protective Services throughout the country.

The event grew out of the work of Dr. Deborah G. Alicen, a clinical psychologist who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Child Protective Services. Her research indicated that many caseworkers have no college training, and that only 28 percent of all CPS workers in the country have either a Bachelor of Science or a Master of Science in Social Work degree. Thus, 72 percent of them, she concludes, have no suitable professional training.[7]

A study of 5,000 child welfare workers would bear this out. Researchers found that only 15 percent held a Bachelor of Science degree in Social Work, while only 13 percent held a Master of Science degree in the field.[8]

James McElhannon, a former Arkansas social worker describes his first days as a child protective caseworker:

My first day on the job, I was given a policy manual to look at, which basically taught me how to get travel reimbursement. And so, the second day on the job, I was handed cases to go out and investigate, so obviously, I went to investigate these cases without any experience or training whatsoever. The people who are making these decisions about children are still people that are undertrained, underpaid and underexperienced.[9]

"Foolish record-keeping policies, inadequate oversight, poor training and shortsighted budget cuts have left imperiled children with a crippled champion," a Suffolk County, New York, grand jury investigation concludes.[10]

In Utah, a 1993 Audit by the General Accounting Office found that 24 of 100 randomly selected referrals were inadequately investigated by Child Protective Services. The report concluded that system-wide changes are needed to protect the interests of both children and their families:

Better training, more focused supervisory review, and changes in staffing will help ensure that children are protected, families are preserved where possible, and a permanent home is established.[11]

Elsewhere, the Virginia House and Senate recently passed Joint House Resolution 502, which established a 1995-96 Joint House Subcommittee to investigate the adequacy of the training Child Protective Services workers receive.[12]

The sad reality is that the requirements for becoming a child protective services caseworker are very low.

In Georgia, a 1995 Child Protective Services Program Evaluation indicates that the minimum educational requirement for becoming a child protective caseworker is that of a High School diploma. The requirements in Indiana are only somewhat better, with "some college" as the prerequisite.[13]

Just how low are the requirements for becoming a child protective caseworker?

These frightening words were reported by the New York Times as spoken by a former protective services supervisor, one who had spent a decade working in the New York City Child Welfare Administration field office:

The worst of the caseworkers was extraordinarily bad -- unable to spell, to write sentences.

And there were some seriously troubled, dysfunctional people. They were the people knocking on the doors of others and asking how they were treating their children. You had to ask yourself: What is this madness?[14]

According to sociologist John M. Hagedorn, a reform minded administrator who tried for two and a half years to reform the troubled Milwaukee social services bureaucracy:

Milwaukee County civil service procedures allow a worker to go one day from handling baggage at the airport or feeding animals at the zoo to the next day investigating sexual abuse complaints.[15]
The situation is not unique to Milwaukee, as Michael Petit, Deputy Director of the Child Welfare League of America, explained to a 1995 Congressional subcommittee:

one-half of the States have no preservice training right now for the child welfare workers. You can be a 23-year-old social worker on Friday doing food stamps, and on Monday you are talking about somebody who has had sex with their children.[16]

Says author and family-violence expert Richard Gelles of the University of Rhode Island: "It is only mildly facetious to talk about child-protective workers being 26-year-old art-history majors with 20 hours of training who do risk-assessment based on how the toys are lined up."[17]

Evidently, child protective caseworkers get an earlier start in Massachusetts. "We need the best people in the field," says Marie Parente, Chairwoman of the Massachusetts Legislative Committee on Foster Care. "We can't have these 22-year-old art students making decisions about children's lives."[18]

The lack of training often has a tremendous impact on how investigations are conducted, as well as their outcomes. Law enforcement personnel in the state of Florida note that there were many caseworkers who were accusatory in tone from the outset of the initial interview, attributing this to their lack of training, among some other factors.

A recent study indicates that some of the state's child protective services caseworkers were "notorious for their cold, almost confrontational, style thus putting families on the defensive."

"In the absence of proper training, some were unnecessarily and unwisely heavy handed and reacted to resistance with an exertion of power," note reviewers. As a result, the agency had a widely held reputation of being "an invasive bureaucracy which removes children from their families without good cause."[19]

By many accounts, hiring standards continue ever to diminish. Faced with low pay, increasing caseloads, the high stress of helping allegedly abused children, and confronted by criticism from the public when a child dies, qualified candidates are often avoiding the job.

In one North Carolina county, for example, officials are turning to those with little or no social work experience to fill new positions. Many have degrees in the humanities or other subjects that are unrelated to children or Social Services.[20]

The lack of training and experience is not limited to the child protective services intake workers, extending throughout the entire child welfare bureaucracy. According to David Liederman, Executive Director of the Child Welfare League of America:

There is inadequate training for foster parents, for caseworkers, for core personnel, and for administrators. I would suggest to you that it is not in the best interest of children or families in this country to hire someone with a B.A. in history, give them three weeks of training, and turn them loose...[21]

North Carolina now requires some training for social workers who investigate child abuse and neglect, but not for its foster care workers.

"We have social workers coming into agencies who've never dealt with public agencies, who may or may not have degrees in social work," says Joann Caye, a former state Department of Social Services supervisor who teaches at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's School of Social Work.

"In many, many instances, we're dealing with social workers so overworked and undertrained that they can't get the cases right."[22]

Is this what was intended by the original legislation? Not according to Pat Schroeder, former Congresswoman and sponsor of the Mondale Act, who writes:

In the Child Abuse and Protection Act, we tried to set up a system in which trained people could identify children and parents who were in trouble and offer them help. . . People's lives can hinge on the judgement of the social worker assigned to their case. Yet some states don't even require social workers to have specialized training in their field.[23]

Douglas Besharov, founding director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, addressed the issue of social worker training in the context of the high unfounded rate of allegations before the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families:

There are, of course, many reasons for the high unfounded rate--evidence of child maltreatment is hard to obtain, overworked and inadequately trained workers may not uncover the evidence that does exist, and many cases are labeled unfounded as a means of caseload control or when there are no services available to help the family.[24]

Writing in Justice for Children, author Andrew H. Vachss explains the need for adequately trained child abuse investigators:

Child abuse investigation is not a hobby. It is not a game for amateurs. We must establish irreducible minimums of competence in all investigative and fact-finding procedures, and we must be assured that professionals adhere to such standards.[25]

But, instead of irreducible minimums of competence, what we find instead is an extraordinary degree of incompetence among the ranks of child protective services caseworkers.

Genuine cases of life-threatening child abuse all-too-frequently go uninvestigated as poorly trained child protective caseworkers lacking in any training or life experience make decisions that will greatly impact families and lives. The result is that children continue to die, even as functional and loving families are needlessly destroyed.

"Whether to blame the workers or not is often simply a matter of perspective," according to John Hagedorn. "Interviews with DSS management as part of the Youth Initiative evaluation found widespread agreement that line workers were the greatest obstacle to reform." Notes the former Youth Initiative director: "I could fill an entire book with 'bad worker' stories from personal experience and from the lips of managers and line staff themselves."[26]

Says David Liederman of the Child Welfare League of America:

Our very first priority has been and will always be to assure the safety of abused and neglected children and to make sure that their best interest is served. To do that, you have got to have experienced people. Unfortunately, many times the people making judgements in this business are rookies. This is no place for rookies...[27]

As the experts continue to testify, and the studies are conducted, children continue to be needlessly separated from their families and placed by the thousands into a foster care system that presents tremendous potential risks of harm. Meanwhile, those children in genuine need of protection continue to "slip through the cracks."

Says former New York City caseworker Marc Parent: "You hear about children who fall through the cracks, but the truth is that there are no cracks. There are only people, and children are falling through their fingers."[28]

But if there is one aspect of social worker training that is often worse than no training at all, it is the training that some social workers do receive.

Copyright 1997 - 2002 Rick Thoma

Index | Home | Footnotes

Last Updated June 27, 1998