Blending Perspectives and Building Common Ground. The Impact of Perpetual Crisis in the Child Welfare Field

04/01/1999

Child welfare staff make complex decisions daily regarding child safety that fundamentally affect the lives of children and families.  These decisions are made in an environment of "zero tolerance" for error, in which a worker's error may become tomorrow's headline accusing an agency of overlooking "obvious" peril for a child.  The constant possibility of harm to a child following a decision that the child is not at immediate risk, or following reunification with a parent who has improved, makes workers cautious about withdrawing from the lives of families.  Child welfare professionals know that if a child is harmed following reunification with a parent who relapses, it is the child welfare agency, not the substance abuse treatment agency, that will be blamed by the media and politicians.  In this environment of high visibility in the case of error, workers are often also faced with large caseloads that make it extremely difficult to adequately attend to families' complex situations.  This combination of factors may produce a crisis orientation in which only the most pressing situations are addressed and other families' needs are given only cursory attention.

An environment of perpetual crisis also manifests its impact in high burnout and turnover rates among child welfare staff, making it difficult to assure continuity and therefore quality casework.  Workers become frustrated because services for families are in critically short supply and many are not within the caseworker's authority to provide.  The result is that too often families receive whatever services are available rather than those that may be most appropriate for their needs.  These frustrations are particularly evident when a client's key problem is substance abuse and the child welfare agency does not itself have the authority to access or pay for substance abuse treatment services.  In addition, the courts become frustrated by the apparent disconnect between clients' needs and delivered services - and it is the child welfare staff who tend to bear the brunt of this frustration.  Families, however, face the loss of their children when termination of parental rights actions are initiated in the absence of appropriate, accessible services.