Like Musical Chairs? Become a Child Welfare Worker

By Steib, Sue D.; Blome, Wendy Whiting | Child Welfare, July/August 2004 | Go to article overview

Like Musical Chairs? Become a Child Welfare Worker

Steib, Sue D., Blome, Wendy Whiting, Child Welfare

Remember the childhood game "Musical Chairs?" The options diminish every round, the number of losers increases every turn, and yet the music plays on. At a childhood party, the stakes for losing may be low, but for children and families in the child welfare system, the conflicting requirements from multiple systems are like chairs removed from the circle, leaving fewer options and less opportunity. Caseworkers and managers have long known what policymakers sometimes want to forget-legislation and its resulting regulations do not exist in an isolated world, but join an already complicated litany of rules and expectations that all affect children and families.

Researchers have recognized the "multiple clocks" that tick in the ears of vulnerable children and families as impediments to integrated service delivery (Young, Gardner, & Dennis, 1998). Child welfare families are involved in diverse systems and may be subject to time frames established by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), and mental health and juvenile justice systems. TANF requires most family heads to find employment or engage in training for employment within a year and to rely on aid for no more than five years. Concurrently, ASFA mandates that workers develop and a court approve a permanent plan within 12 months of a child's entry into foster care (Pecora, Whittaker, Maluccio, & Earth, 2002). Agencies are to forward petitions for termination of parental rights if a child has been in placement for 15 of 22 months.

Families served by both public assistance and child welfare often find conflict between the requirements of the two systems. They must work or attend job training during the same hours that juvenile court hearings and visits with their children are scheduled. Not surprisingly, administrative data suggest that the children of working TANF recipients are at greater risk of foster care placement, and child welfare staff report that these families have difficulty fulfilling case plan requirements for return of their children (Geen, 2002).

Meanwhile, the services that parents need operate on a different set of timelines. Substance abuse is a presenting factor for many child welfare families (Semidei, Radel, & Nolan, 2001; Sun, 2000; Young & Gardner, 2002; Young et al., 1998), but the services to treat them are lacking. Treatment failures are not unexpected (Gregoire & Schultz, 2001; McAlpine, Marshall, & Doran, 2001) and waiting lists can be long (Young & Gardner, 2002), particularly as states and their contracted agencies experience cuts. Services tailored to meet the needs of women with children who comprise the majority of child welfare service recipients are often in even shorter supply (Uziel-Miller & Lyons, 2000).

When income support, child welfare, substance abuse, and behavioral health professionals talk, they usually accept that helping systems do not collaborate except in pilot programs and for specific families. Even then it is unusual to find all the relevant systems working in a collaborative, family-focused manner (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2002).

The child welfare worker is left to integrate on the line level what has not been managed at the programmatic level or connected at the policy level. Workers know that families hear conflicting messages: "Recovery is one day at a time," and "The waiting list is nine months," plus "You need to find a job" but "I know unemployment is high." Child welfare workers also wrestle with having fewer and fewer chairs available in their own version of musical chairs. Child welfare operates not only according to federal and state rules, but also according to the orders of the presiding judge. A judge can order a worker to find housing when she knows Section 8 has a waiting list, to enroll a mother in drug treatment when he knows the best he can get is seven-day detox, or to persuade a resistant parent to use in mental health services. …

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