Child Welfare Workers: Who They Are and How They View the Child Welfare System

By Zell, Maristela C. | Child Welfare, January/February 2006 | Go to article overview

Child Welfare Workers: Who They Are and How They View the Child Welfare System


Zell, Maristela C., Child Welfare


This article examines the characteristics of child welfare caseworkers, their views of the child welfare system, their clients, their agency of employment, and child welfare policies, and whether these views vary according to caseworkers' characteristics. Quantitative and qualitative methods were used to analyze in-depth interviews conducted with caseworkers in New York and Chicago. The major themes that emerged from the analysis indicate caseworkers believed that the child welfare system does not meet the needs of the children in care, lacks the resources to appropriately serve clients, and often establishes goals that cannot be attained by the biological parents. Caseworkers held negative views of the biological parents and, although most described their organization as well equipped, almost as many reported that their organization lacked technical, administrative, and personnel resources. Caseworkers' views of child welfare policies emphasized the need for reforming the system and reevaluating funding priorities.

In the past four decades, child welfare public policies have reflected increased efforts to ensure children's safety, stability, and well-being. The 1974 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act mandated the reporting of child maltreatment, resulting in increasing reports of child abuse and neglect, as well as a growing number of children entering custody of the child welfare system. Child maltreatment increasingly became the focus (Hagedorn, 1995; McGowan & Walsh, 1985; Petr, 1998). As foster care caseloads grew, critics charged that the system lacked case planning and adequate practices to reestablish family functioning or to ensure that children who could not safely return to their parents became members of new permanent families through adoption (Gambrill & Stein, 1978; Kadushin, 1980; Laird & Hartman, 1985). The 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act mandated "reasonable efforts" to prevent family break up and rapid identification of permanent placement options.

As dissatisfaction with the rise of out-of-home placements grew steadily, a philosophy of family preservation became the major trend of the 1980s. Programs designed to prevent out-ofhome placements emerged throughout the country that included intensive, round-the-clock interventions to teach families new skills and resource acquisition (Kelly & Blythe, 2000). The 1993 Family Preservation and Family Support program increased funding for intensive services to keep families together, reflecting the view that family preservation programs were the best way to remedy problems that led to foster care placements. These programs suffered a resounding backlash in the mid-1990s because of media stories based on horror stories of children harmed by their parents even after the system's interventions, the continued rise in child maltreatment reporting, and the failure of family preservation programs to prevent out-of-home placements (Kelly & Blythe, 2000; Schuerman, Rzepnicki, Littell, & Chak, 1993).

Although some researchers pointed out that the growth in foster care caseloads was fueled by increases in poverty and substance abuse, others focused on inadequacies of the child welfare system, including limitations in caseworkers' knowledge and skills, mishaps in child welfare cases, and the out-of-control caseload growth (Curtis & McCullough, 1993; Esposito & Fine, 1985; Gleeson, O'Donnell & Bonecutter, 1997; Huxtable, 1994; lieberman, Horny & Russell, 1989; McGowan & Walsh, 2000; Ozawa, 1993; Pecora, Whittaker, Maluccio & Earth, 1992). These concerns led to research funding to examine the functioning of the child welfare system and those who worked within it, and ultimately led to the passage of the 1997 Adoption and Safe Fami lies Act, which emphasized child safety and established shorter timelines for termination of parental rights (Kelly & Blythe, 2000; Lindsey, 1994; McGowan & Walsh, 1985; Tracy & Pine, 2000). …

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Child Welfare Workers: Who They Are and How They View the Child Welfare System
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