Academic journal article Child Welfare

Case Records in Public Child Welfare: Uses and a Flexible Format

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Case Records in Public Child Welfare: Uses and a Flexible Format

Article excerpt

After reviewing trends in child welfare case record-keeping and current uses, a flexible format is proposed to organize public child welfare case records. Recognition must be given to the multiple purposes case records are put to and the variable lengths of service time that they cover. Needs and demands placed on the casework staff members who do most of the compiling of records must be included in the design of new systems.

Case recording is a constant preoccupation of child welfare caseworkers under pressure from difficult cases and expanding caseloads. It is also an enduring source of frustration and conflict [Kagle 1984] between caseworkers trying to maximize service time with client families and supervisors trying to get workers to document their activities with families. Changes in legislation and regulation have increased requirements and altered methods for case recording. Child welfare case records may be called upon to serve many functions--tracking services given to families and the families' progress, providing documentation for later abuse reports or for terminating parental rights, giving information to a court of law, or aiding in the clinical supervision and evaluation of caseworkers and evaluating service.

How well do current methods of record-keeping serve the purposes of child welfare records? After a review of the history of case recording in child welfare, this article describes the purposes of, and reviews format options for, recording systems; discusses such factors as worker's attitudes, which must be considered when choosing a recording system; and suggests a flexible format for organizing any record system in public child welfare.


Records of 19th century agencies at most offer short--two or three line--summaries of case circumstances and resolutions [Bremner 1956]. During that time period, there was also an emphasis against too much record-keeping. For example, a memo written before 1920 by an official of the Pittsburgh Association for the Improvement of the Poor, founded in 1875, states, "Previous to the year 1912 there was sufficient objection among the lady managers of the Association then serving to prevent the keeping of permanent records of persons and families receiving charitable aid. Some of the ladies, with the best of intentions, were of the opinion that it was unchristian and ungenerous to make a record of a person's misfortune" [Family Resources Archives].

As social work practice developed, styles of record-keeping shifted, from recording minimal information (sometimes only demographics) to verbatim transcripts of interviews, known as process recording [Kagle 1984]. Though still occasionally used today in social work education, process recording had largely given way by the 1940s and '50s to the diagnostic record, which used selected narrative and analytic content. In the 1970s, driven by medical models and a new emphasis on client access to records, more treatment-oriented, structured approaches were developed. With names like Goal-Attainment Scaling and Problem-Oriented Recording, these approaches focused treatment on specific goals and objectives, in line with the emphasis in social services on short-term treatment in contrast to the considerable commitment of time often devoted to therapeutic services in the past.

Formerly, case records served both a clinical and a narrative function, primarily to document service history and for evaluation of the worker. They were not open to clients and were seldom reviewed by anyone outside the agency. As regulations have expanded, however, so have the uses of case records.

Since the early 1970s, child welfare practice has changed dramatically. Deriving from a legacy of private agency practice (group care, family foster care, and family service) and with a heavy emphasis on confidentiality, child welfare practice traditionally emphasized professional judgment. Since the enactment of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 (P. …

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