To many struggling families, social workers often seem like the enemy. Parents and children alike see social workers as interlopers intent on separating loved ones and preventing parents from succeeding in their roles. Yet, if these families looked closer at the efforts of social workers, they would see that the opposite is true.
Social workers assigned to struggling families are rarely interested in separating children from parents for the long-term. Not only are there already too many children in long-term foster care – more than half a million around the U.S. on any given day – but indiscriminately taking children from their parents is cruel and callous.
Instead, social workers take pains to help struggling parents become the best caregivers possible. Social workers can help improve family outcomes by training parents to succeed – here’s how.
Before a social worker can help fulfill the needs of a family, they must understand what those needs are. Thus, information gathering is an essential first step in the process of reunifying parents and children and generating a plan for long-term health and success. A social worker should be present from the very beginning of a family’s formal struggles, attending even the first preliminary permanency proceeding, in which parents are informed of charges and referred for assessments. During these initial phases, the social worker should compile basic information about the family, including a history of physical and mental health and criminal records for all adults and children connected to the household.
Ideally, social workers committed to keeping families together and assisting parents and children in developing healthy habits and attitudes should have a relatively light caseload, between eight and 15 cases at one time. Unfortunately, social workers are notoriously overworked; though there is hardly a study that has conclusively identified an average caseload for American social workers – because social work in the U.S. is so varied due to vastly differing environments, locations and services – the average social worker in the U.K. claims upwards of 40 cases at a time. For social workers to have a positive impact on parents, they must be capable of discovering germane information and applying it to their cases in a timely manner. Fortunately, it is possible to acquire these social work skills and more by earning a Master’s in Social Work online.
It is impossible to know everything about a family from health data and legal records. Social workers must form connections with parents if they want any hope of helping them reunite with their children. This means meeting face-to-face with parents frequently to better understand their personal struggles and perspectives. Within a week of their first court hearing, social workers should call on parents in their homes and ask them to share their stories. Importantly, social workers should also ask parents about their goals – not just regarding the case, but also for the near and distant future. For example, parents might hope to move to a safer community or obtain a degree. It is important to maintain and strengthen this initial connection with frequent visits in the coming weeks, at least meeting once per week, until parents form other dependable, constructive support systems.
As parents work with social workers, they should begin to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, identify their needs and become familiar with community resources. Ideally, social workers should be available to attend necessary appointments with parents, for example, 12-step addiction recovery meetings or mental health counseling sessions. This forces parents to be accountable to their commitments and develop healthy habits that they’ll need once their children return. Social workers should also help parents seek necessary aid, such as SNAP benefits or public housing.
Accompanying parents on these endeavors not only forces them to adopt positive practices, but it helps build trust between social workers and parents. A social worker who throws lists of standard resources to parents and abandons them to decipher complex systems is not obviously on the parents’ side; a social worker who takes time to assist struggling parents in finding the right path demonstrates their care for reuniting the family. Trust in a social worker eventually engenders trust in other people as well as the government, which struggling families require to survive and thrive.