5 Keys to Working With—and Around—Social Workers
By Joseph Grove
Among all the professionals with the ability to impact the success of a CASA volunteer with his or her case, none is more potentially influential than the social worker. These state workers possess the keys to services and the power to make decisions that, when properly administered, can open doors for our kids, level uneven roads, remove villains and introduce heroes.
At the same time, their improper administration of those tools—or a failure to apply them at all—can prolong or worsen the suffering of the boys and girls for whom we are pledged to advocate.
Even the best-intentioned of social workers can struggle to do what ought to be done. Over the past three years, Kentucky—ranked 50th out of the 50 states in 2017 for its mistreatment of children—has experienced a 30-percent increase in the number of reports of suspected abuse or neglect. That number was 137,000 last year. More than 10 percent of those allegations were substantiated. Yet the number of social workers available to investigate and serve those cases has remained the same. Worse, we have about 500 fewer workers than we did in 2007, and since then, the number of cases has doubled.
From an August 7, 2019, story by Deborah Yetter in The Courier-Journal:
Kentucky's target is 18 cases per social worker, though national professional standards recommend 17
Caseloads have averaged 30-31 per worker since 2017
State workers having more than 80 individual cases is not unheard of
Caseloads average even higher in Jefferson County, especially when counting "past dues" — cases that have ended but must still have documentation completed by the social worker
Recently, the number of such outstanding cases in Jefferson County alone reached 5,000
Of course, not all social workers are created equal.
Many put in hours way beyond the call of duty and endure long, odd hours and potentially dangerous situations to improve the lives of the families assigned to them.
But I also have watched one social worker be dressed down by a judge for lying about the compliance of a mother with her program. Another social worker decided without informing CASA to change the time of a home visit, so that we arrived long after she had gone. Only a very small percentage of my calls and emails are returned. In pre-court conferencing, adults and even the children involved in the cases are frequently subject in absentia to ridicule and insult. Some social workers seem to regard the state directive to return children to homes as sacrosanct, even when reasonable minds could differ whether such a return will be in the best interest of the child.
You’ll likely encounter both kinds, either directly with your case or by observation, in your time as a CASA volunteer. So how can you make the most of the relationship with yours? Here are five keys I’ve put together. Please let me know your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org, especially if you have additional helpful ones I can share later.
1. Call and meet the social worker as soon as you are assigned a case. An immediate contact with the social worker is part of our protocol, so this key is nothing new. Find out the social worker’s name and contact information from your supervisor right away. During your call, introduce yourself as the CASA volunteer and make an appointment for as soon as possible to drop by the worker’s office to review her files. (We are legal entitled to see all but psychological evaluations of the parents.)
2. Don’t assume the social worker is your ally. The beauty of being a CASA volunteer is that we have one mission only: identify and pursue what we believe is in the best interest of the children assigned to us. We are not beholden to the entire family. We are not bound by state guidance that argues every child be united with parents or maintained in a home so long as it meets minimum standards. That’s not true for the social worker. She is influenced by a number of policies and laws that simply don’t apply to us.
That said, however, we have to understand the judge is also directed by some of the same policies and laws. That means if we don’t acknowledge the reality of those guidelines, we’ll be ineffective and ultimately become seen as unreasonable. Pick your battles carefully, then. I’m reminded here of lyrics from a famous Rolling Stone song: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”
3. Share what you learn, but share it strategically. Nothing is more important than our credibility. We are not professionals; we are not certified by any state agency. This means we must exhibit faultless integrity with everyone in the CASA volunteer’s world: the judge, social workers, attorneys, children’s families and the children themselves. But that doesn’t dictate that you have to share everything you know. In matters when you believe the social worker is pursuing a course different from what you believe in the best interests of your children, it may be advantageous to share less rather than more.
Let’s suppose you have a social worker who wants to return a teenage child to her father, whom she hates. Let’s suppose further that you believe that the child is better served by remaining in her current foster home. The trouble for you is that the father is asserting that the foster home is too lenient in discipline. Here, you may be doing a disservice to your cause if you report each and every small infarction the teenager commits inside the home if reporting them supports a picture of the home you honestly and sincerely don’t believe is accurate. If the social worker learns of these small matters, so be it. She can leverage them to have the child restored to the father.
4. Use all your assets. Work the back channels. Negotiate.
Enlist your supervisor to support your position when he or she is in conference with other parties before court, or ask to attend yourself.
Talk to the attorneys, especial the guardian ad litem, not only to get their perspective on a social worker’s contributions, but to lobby for support. Some of my strongest back-ups have come from the lawyers.
I once stopped a home-removal by negotiating between the parents of a child and the social worker, giving the family an opportunity to keep their child if they agreed to getting an appointment with a specialist to diagnose a problematic medical condition.
5. Speak your truth, even if your voice shakes. Our greatest moment comes when we stand before the judge as a virtual equal among the attorneys and the social workers. If you have done your job well and prepared a strong report, you have the opportunity there to be as influential as anyone else. That doesn’t make it easy. You may be nervous. You may self-question why anyone would listen to you. What if the social worker becomes angry with you? Dismiss those thoughts! Even if your voice shakes, defend your position. Make your case. Tell your supervisor you need him or her to have your back. Then, don’t worry about whether anyone else in that courtroom likes you or not. If you do that, you can walk out—win or lose—with the pride of knowing you did your absolute most for the children who have no one else like you in their lives.