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Learning Survival Skills in Child Welfare

(Originally published April 2022)

There is a tried-and-true formula for making people sick and emotionally unwell in the workplace: give them lots of responsibility but little power and control. This is what child welfare bureaucracies do as a matter of course regardless of the abilities of managers, which vary widely as in any type of organization. In addition, child welfare agencies typically add to chronic stress with unreasonable workload demands on casework staff and supervisors, and then evaluate units on an array of performance indicators without consideration of workload pressures. A few managers bully caseworkers, units, and offices to improve their relative ranking on performance indicators. After all, if one unit or office is performing well despite workload pressures, why can’t other units and offices do the same?


There is another formula for undermining both courage and morale in challenging, dangerous jobs: create conditions that make it difficult to create and maintain cohesive units and ignore the importance of peer modelling in developing job skills among inexperienced caseworkers.  In Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (2002), an outstanding book on leadership skills, Shay asserts: “The human brain codes social recognition, support and attachment as physical safety.” Cohesion of combat units, he states, “Increases the ability to overcome fear (we call that courage) and reduces fear.”


One of the reasons that unit supervisors are so important is that their day in-day out actions have a powerful effect on unit cohesion. However, the pandemic resulted in the abandonment, or infrequent use, of offices for almost two years. Agency managers learned the lesson that caseworkers can work out of their homes as easily as out of an office. As a result, some child welfare agencies have concluded that offices are dispensable, or that offices are best used for infrequent meetings. What can supervisors do to maintain cohesive units in these circumstances? 


Shay discusses a model of positive leadership that applies to child welfare as well as the military. Crucial elements of positive leadership include:


  1. Make it safe to tell the truth.

  2. Support subordinate leaders’ professional growth.

  3. Build their competence to assess situations and take initiative to develop adaptive solutions.

  4. Mentor, rather than intimidate, subordinate leaders.

  5. Require subordinate leaders to study their profession.

  6. Take responsibility for setting mission and priorities, not assigning every task as “highest priority, to be done immediately”.

  7. Support self-maintenance rather than defeating it.



  While all these elements of positive leadership are important, none is more vital than support for truth telling up and down the chain

of command. Leaders who suppress unwelcome news and view communication as an opportunity for organizational public relations,

touting dubious achievements and ignoring failures, are viewed as untrustworthy. When leaders go a step further and suppress or

punish bottom-up truth telling, all possibility of trust in leadership is destroyed. There is no way for an organization engaged in disingenuous BS, in both external and internal communications, to take on challenges in competent, creative ways. For this reason, support or lack of support for truth telling is the best stand-alone indicator of the quality of leadership. A good illustration of this principle is the recent disgraceful history of Boeing.


What to do in the absence of positive leadership

Some child welfare offices are fortunate to have outstanding middle managers, but others may not be so lucky. Some regional managers and child welfare directors are extraordinary, and a few are visionary, but many have limited knowledge of child welfare and are mainly interested in political survival. What can caseworkers and supervisors do when their middle managers and/or regional managers and top leaders are not helpful, resourceful, or trustworthy?


Caseworkers and supervisors can create cohesive units - the most important requirement for survival in child welfare. Cohesive units cannot have factions or scapegoats, and unit members must have frequent social interactions. One lesson which everyone around the world should have learned from the pandemic is that Zoom meetings and social media are not an adequate substitute for in-person contact in training programs, meetings, or informal social  interaction. In recent years (pre-pandemic), Americans of all ages  suffered from the substitution of on-line contact for in-person social life. This tendency hurts most people to some extent but has a devastating effect on newly hired employees who become extraordinarily dependent on one person - their supervisor - for guidance and emotional support. If a supervisor is not up to the task, or is missing in action, a newly hired caseworker is without recourse.


 Cohesive units can do more than provide social support, concrete support and mutual assistance: they can also forge a group identity through an array  of small and large commitments among unit members:  


  • We will never, under any circumstances, use garbage bags to transport a youth’s belongings from one home to another.

  • We will give everyone a clear explanation in plain language for our actions, without using acronyms or jargon such as “safety threat.”

  • We will ask for help from other unit members when we need help, and we will give help when other unit members request it.

  • We will send foster parents a brief note or card of appreciation when they have provided exemplary care to a child or assisted a parent in reunification.

  • We will read and discuss one research study per month.

  • We will participate in joint training re assessment tools or practices which the unit may adopt.

  • We will not tolerate unethical behavior even for the sake of unit solidarity.

  • For self-protection in tort actions, we will document in case records the size of our caseloads, and numbers of new investigations/assessments per month, during the past 90 days when we open a new case and when we close a case.

  • We will admit mistakes and make amends as soon as possible.

  • We will join with other community professionals to improve services to children and parents.

  • We will find ways of giving one another honest feedback, both positive as well as constructive criticism regarding our casework.

  • We will find ways to make agency rules work for people rather than using rules to deny essential services.

  • Whenever possible, we will speak with one voice to managers regarding agency policies and practices that need to change, and we will call systemic abuse by its right name.   


A positive group identity is a powerful force that can overcome cynicism or apathy. I occasionally encounter the view that current conditions create impossible obstacles to unit solidarity and development of positive group identity, but this is self-fulfilling prophecy. Human beings who have confronted challenging conditions more difficult than those in child welfare have found ways to join with others and find creative, pro-active responses. Child welfare staff in every county, in every state, can do the same. Furthermore, thousands of experienced and retired child welfare staff have been able to form alliances and exert extraordinary influence on child welfare practice in local communities. Role models abound once child welfare staff begin looking for them.   


How to acquire influence

Cohesive units provide a solid foundation for child welfare practice, but there is a task that every caseworker and supervisor must take on

individually: acquiring personal influence within the public agency and in the community. Influence is not the same thing as power or authority, but it is tangible and easy to recognize. When caseworkers and supervisors acquire influence:


  • Unit members and other child welfare staff in the office listen with active interest to what they have to say re agency policies and practice; their input in meetings is welcome and encouraged.   

  • Community professionals outside the agency are accessible and quickly return calls or emails.

  • Agency staff and other community professionals are quick to offer assistance/ services or ask for assistance.

  • One’s positive actions are recognized and rewarded, at least with praise or appreciative comments, and mistakes or questionable   actions are quickly forgiven.  

  • A caseworker or supervisor is included in the planning of innovative agency initiatives or community projects.

  • A caseworker or supervisor is marked out for promotion, and is recognized as an “up and comer” in organizational searches for new    talent.  


Influence is an indicator of status. When experienced staff lack influence, their abilities, actions and views are largely ignored, or they are ridiculed or punished - a painful experience to put it mildly.  Any experienced caseworker or supervisor who has little or no influence in the unit, office or community where she/he works is likely planning to leave the agency at the first good opportunity.


Nevertheless, influence turns out to be a complex, heterogenous phenomenon, which is not how it may appear at first glance. I have worked with child welfare supervisors who had little or no influence in the agency, but extraordinary influence in the small or medium sized community where they resided. There have been supervisors in Washington State in past decades who had far more influence among child welfare staff and in the foundation world than most agency managers. I have served under a few child welfare directors who had no influence with regional managers because they lacked even the most basic concept of how to exercise power. Influence is a product of actions in particular circumstances and with specific people, not a personality trait or an automatic benefit of authority within an organization.  


Every caseworker who works in child welfare begins to acquire influence from day one, even when they cannot articulate how they are doing it. In units, caseworkers acquire influence with supervisors and other unit members by showing up consistently ready to work hard, being dependable, trustworthy, and easy to work with, and through personal qualities such as respect for others, sense of humor, courage, adaptability and intelligence.  A caseworker’s influence can also be enhanced by the acceptance and support of experienced unit members and (above all) by the unit supervisor. The main indicator of influence at the unit and office level is inclusion in meetings and social functions, and in problem solving groups when stakes are high.


Community professionals, including attorneys, are impressed by skills and knowledge, professional commitment, preparation for court  

testimony and accessibility, especially the habit of immediately responding to calls or emails. Everyone outside the public agency is impressed by a caseworker’s or supervisor’s ability to overcome bureaucratic obstacles, and figure out a way to fund a service, get someone paid, find a placement, and solve a variety of practical problems.


Influence is acquired gradually, on multiple tracks, and is a part of a dense network of relationships. It is increased or diminished in multiple ways, but the payoff at the caseworker level is always the same: the ability to to be effective in helping children and their families. Lack of influence is not just personally painful, it diminishes the ability to achieve results on cases, which can have a lasting negative effect on a person’s self confidence and self-esteem.


The rules for supervisors and middle managers for acquiring influence within an organization are more complex, and always include a political dimension. Every supervisor and manager in a child welfare bureaucracy must develop complex relationships and strategies for coping with managers up the chain of command. Political alliances, conflicts between factions and personal loyalties have a large effect on influence. Ideological differences may often be little more than a mask for personal ambitions. Ability and commitment to agency mission matter, but sometimes not as much as a vassal type relationship with top managers.


In my experience, at the top level of child welfare agencies and umbrella human services agencies, it’s likely to be shark infested waters in which personal enmities and personal loyalties can make or break careers.  Cream does not always rise to the top in child welfare agencies, but neither does its weight necessarily sink a career. That depends on Governors and their staff, key legislators, and influential political advocates and others whose identities may be unknown to the public, e.g., philanthropists or foundations.


Enjoying what you do is the best survival strategy 


During the first two years of child welfare employment, unit solidarity and gradual acquisition of personal influence are essential to survival, but as caseworkers become more experienced, the development of knowledge and skills become increasingly important to job satisfaction. As skills develop, activities that were once aversive and a source of anxiety become enjoyable and are opportunities to develop a sense of mastery in the work.  


During a lengthy child welfare career in two states, I worked with or encountered many extraordinarily talented staff, some of whom excelled at activities others frequently avoided, if possible: court involvement, including testimony in dependency proceedings, emergency response, confrontation of unacceptable behavior, interviewing in sex abuse investigations, termination of parental rights, working with difficult adolescents and engaging resistant parents in services.  Child welfare staff who developed exceptional skills and knowledge in any part of child welfare did not burn out, lose motivation and count the days to retirement if they remained in child welfare. In fact, the opposite usually occurred, i.e., their motivation increased, and they never became tired of opportunities to employ their extraordinary skills.


I worked in child protection for 6 years before I began to feel reasonably confident in my assessment skills and judgment, and I suffered from chronic anxiety during much of this time. Unexpectedly, after leaving child protection for several months and beginning child welfare employment in Washington, the anxiety vanished suddenly, like turning off a light switch. Absent chronic fear, child protection became immensely fulfilling, a job I loved and could not get enough of.


I worked with or knew emergency response CPS caseworkers with exceptional de-escalation skills who sometimes rode around with law

enforcement officers in the evening for the fun of it! Neither I, nor they, were models of excellent work/home life balance, per conventional wisdom about survival skills. These stories do indicate, however, that child welfare can become an enormously rewarding profession when experienced staff master complex skills that they can put to effective use daily. The enjoyment in proficient use of complex skills does not require praise or social recognition. The reward is inherent in doing something difficult with great skill when use of these skills has an immediate result.  


There is no limit to child welfare excellence, no limit to knowledge and opportunities for new learning in this demanding profession. It is a sad commentary on the state of child welfare in this country that most caseworkers will leave child welfare employment without the experience of doing an important job skillfully, much less achieving a level of mastery in some area of child welfare practice.  ©



Marmot, M., The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity (2004), Henry Holt & Co. New York City


Shay, J., Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (2002), Scribner, New York City.


See past Sounding Board commentaries     

©Dee Wilson 


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