Effects of Excessive Workload on Child Welfare

(Originally published January 2017)

Excessive workloads have been endemic in public child welfare agencies for decades, so much so that some advocates and policymakers may assume nothing can be done about it. However, when I began working in Washington State's child welfare system during the late 1970's, caseloads were reasonable, much lower than in Colorado, the state where I worked in the early to mid-1970's. Furthermore, caseloads in the office where I was employed remained relatively low for several years.  All good things come to an end; once caseloads began to increase, it took more than a decade to reduce caseloads to a manageable level during the years when I was a CPS supervisor and, then, Area Administrator.   The reality is that caseload averages have always varied among child welfare offices and regions in Washington State; and often varied by a wide margin among units with the same functions within regions of the state.


Caseload vs. workload


 Average caseload size is often a poor indicator of workload pressures within a child welfare system for several reasons. Currently, child welfare agencies usually depend on computer counts of open cases to determine a caseload average, a practice that tends to distort caseload statistics in several ways:


  • Computer counts may include inactive cases, i.e., cases in which there has been no client contact for long periods of time, but that require some additional documentation to close. Counting inactive cases inflates caseload averages and will eventually render any alleged caseload average meaningless. Counting inactive cases acts as an incentive to keep cases open long after all actual work with a child or family has ended.

  • Casework requirements among types of cases in foster care caseloads vary widely. If computer systems lack weighting formulas for “low maintenance” cases such as “tribal payment only” or 'courtesy supervision' cases, including these cases in caseload counts will inflate caseload averages, sometimes to an extreme degree.

  • Child welfare agencies sometimes use funded positions rather than filled positions to compute caseload averages.  Agencies may also include new employees who cannot be assigned cases or can only assigned a limited number of cases in computing caseload averages.  When this practice occurs, caseload averages will appear far more reasonable than they actually are for experienced staff who, in effect, are carrying the load for vacancies and for new employees.

  • In CPS units, the most important indicator of workload is the average number of new investigations assigned per month rather than the number of open cases at a point in time.  New investigations impose unavoidable requirements regarding response time, interviews with children, parents and collateral sources, while most ongoing investigations or assessments can be abbreviated or closed almost at will for many cases.  Workload requirements over which caseworkers have the least control are always the main determinant of workload pressures. In CPS, it is newly assigned investigations and the court actions arising out of these investigations that create the most severe workload pressures.  In foster care units, it is the number of children in foster care and the legal requirements of these cases, especially visitation requirements, that impose out-of-control workload pressures.

  • The availability or lack of administrative support positions has a large influence on workload.  A caseload of 18 foster care cases might be barely manageable in child welfare agencies with ample administrative and visitation support but completely overwhelming without it. 


For these reasons, an agency wide caseload average is a rough indicator (at best) of workload, but is nevertheless how child welfare managers tend to explain and justify staffing requests to policymakers due to simplicity and the ability to compare a child welfare agency's caseload average with a national standard or with recommendations from workload studies. However, there is a cost to this managerial practice. Using a caseload average as a stand alone metric to justify requests for additional positions virtually eliminates the possibility of legislative proposals that would greatly reduce child welfare workloads without reducing average caseload size. For example, adding administrative support positions and case aides in large numbers would have a dramatic, positive effect on workload reduction in CA and other child welfare systems.


Factors that increase workload


Veteran legislators may well view the requests of child welfare agencies for additional positions with skepticism as these requests are so recurrent, seemingly a bottomless pit of need.  For decades (1965-95), the steady and relentless increase in CPS reports (from a few thousands to millions) resulted in the large increases in the child welfare workforce, especially from 1985-99 when in addition to an increase in reports the nation's foster care population doubled.  It was not unusual during these difficult years to hear of offices with average caseloads of 40-80 or higher, and of CPS investigators being assigned at least one new investigation daily. These workload pressures sometimes devastated entire child welfare systems, especially in states and large cities in which foster care populations exploded, overwhelming child welfare agencies, the foster care system and courts. For example, there was a time in the mid-1990's when the Illinois child welfare system had more than 50,000 children in foster care, approximately triple the number of children in foster care today in Illinois!


In the mid-1990s and especially after 2000, many state child welfare agencies began to bring caseloads under control, both because the number of CPS reports stabilized and because of large declines in foster care due to multiple initiatives and financial windfalls, e.g.,  IV-E waivers in Illinois, Los Angeles County and (later) Florida.


Nevertheless, workload pressures continued to be widespread among child welfare systems even during the years (2000-2012) when the number of children in foster care nationally was rapidly declining. Public child welfare agencies in the United States and other English speaking countries are managed through ever expanding policy and procedural frameworks which steadily add to the time required to complete investigations/ assessments, monitor the safety of foster children, develop case plans, etc. I can remember a time in Washington State during the 1980s when a foster caseload of 25 was considered reasonable by most caseworkers and supervisors. As recently as 2000-2004, a foster care caseload of 18-20 (weighted to discount “low maintenance” cases) was viewed by many practitioners in CA as manageable, if not ideal.  A 2007 workload study in CA recommended a foster care caseload standard of 12, based on the estimate that each case (i.e., child) required 10 hours per month to complete policy and procedural requirements. Numerous workload studies have found that caseworkers have about 120 hours per month (not 174 hours per month) to spend on casework duties after subtracting time for meetings, training, annual leave, breaks, etc.


Why would child welfare systems, already overextended and often sued for failure to meet the requirements detailed in policy and procedural manuals, continue to add to these requirements, thereby increasing their workload burdens and exposure to liability? The answer is insistent, relentless pressure from advocates, legislators, stakeholders and sometimes their own staff to improve practice.  In Washington State, the micromanagement of child welfare by the legislature has been egregious for decades.  In many states, policymakers have passed laws spelling out in great detail everything from CPS response times, screening practices, use of assessment tools and guidelines, time lines and processes for responding to foster parents' complaints, release of information following child deaths, to use of evidenced based practices.  New requirements in law or policy are rarely accompanied by new positions.  However, the managerial paradigm used to manage child welfare agencies all over the English speaking world should not be blamed on policymakers.  Legislators and governors are merely taking advantage of opportunities to control agencies in ways that agencies depend on, practically without exception, and often without reflection.  Legal mandates and policy requirements expand to satisfy the aspirations of all parties and interests with political leverage to influence child welfare practice.


How practitioners cope with overwhelming workloads


In past decades, it was common for child welfare caseworkers and supervisors to work 50-60 hour weeks, with most of the overtime uncompensated. However, there have always been risks to managers of systemic violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act regarding the right of caseworkers to be compensated for overtime.  An intent to act in accordance with federal law has motivated many state systems to allow substantial amounts of paid overtime. In fact, some state child welfare systems in which caseworker salaries do not amount to a living wage depend on overtime both to cope with workload demands and allow staff to increase their incomes. In these states, it has often been easier to justify huge amounts of overtime pay than request hundreds of new positions.


Fortunately, caseworkers under 40 years of age are often insistent on maintaining a reasonable work/life balance, and are unwilling to sacrifice family life to the demands of thankless casework jobs. Caseworkers determined to give agencies no more than 40 hours per week must make some difficult choices regarding priorities. Task completion tends to take precedence over maintaining relationships. Birth parents struggling with demanding case plans and foster parents caring for children with challenging child behaviors may feel unsupported and pretty much on their own (see Jill Berrick's Take Me Home).  In worst case scenarios, caseworkers may not consistently return calls or emails, thereby undermining the trust of those who depend on them to be accessible and helpful.


Behavioral economists (see Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir) have described the effects of many types of scarcity, i.e., too little money, food, time, etc., on cognitive functioning.  Under conditions of scarcity, people narrow their focus, develop tunnel vision and literally become dumber.  Child protection staff narrow their concern to cases in which danger to children is immediately apparent. Concepts such as “impending danger”, high risk, at-risk and child vulnerability are viewed as irrelevant, or too abstract to utilize in an assessment process. Tunnel vision is then rationalized as a focus on child safety, i.e., danger to children, which is conflated with multiple varying understandings of Safety and presented as the goal of child protection. In other words, scarcity of time shapes both attention and conceptual understanding of child protection to concentrate on a small percentage of reports which often require out-of-home placement and legal action. Once this type of thinking has influenced training programs and been embodied in policy manuals, it is difficult to change, even when staffing resources are greatly increased.


In foster care caseloads, overwhelming workload pressures result in an emphasis on court documents, documented case plans and other agency documentation; a virtual world in which real children and families may seem like shadowy representations instead of whom the documentation actually concerns. One of the curious features of child welfare under conditions of scarcity is that caseworkers may rarely interact with children and youth, much less have time to develop a close relationship with children on their caseload.


Imagining a better version of child welfare


The tunnel vision and conceptual limitations I have just described are a standard response to scarcity, not a moral flaw of child welfare staff struggling to do their best under difficult circumstances. Under conditions of extreme scarcity, caseworkers and supervisors cope the best they can.  Rationalizations for choices made due to necessity may sound strange to persons not subject to these pressures. Nevertheless, it is vital that child welfare staff at all levels retain or acquire an imagination of a better child welfare world in which ample resources are available to do the following:


  • In child protection units, expand the narrow focus on risk of imminent harm to a concern with high risk and at-risk children and with developmental harm resulting from child maltreatment.  It is possible that the FAR program in Washington State is helping staff to develop this vision. If so, an understanding of the potential of early intervention to prevent serious child maltreatment is at least as important to the future of child welfare in Washington State as whatever outcomes this program is achieving. 

  • In foster care units, imagine how every child in foster care for more than a couple of months and their parents might be supported by a community team similar to those utilized in family treatment drug courts.

  • Accept the reality that no set of policies regarding caseworker visits to children in foster care will compensate for a lack of time to develop relationships with these children. Foster children cannot be protected by policy requirements and licensing regulations, only by relationships.  Furthermore, foster parents need to be supported in a way that requires close relationships with caseworkers who are accessible and available whenever foster parents need them.


The most devastating and hard to undo effect of overwhelming workload pressures that continue for years in child welfare agencies is to shackle the imagination of practitioners and community professionals regarding the possibilities of child welfare. It is the capacity to imagine a better child welfare world that needs to be nurtured among practitioners and stakeholders worn down by a daily grind of impossible demands and unmet needs.



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