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New Practice Norms in Child Welfare
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New Practice Norms in Child Welfare

Steve Bielarski, LCSW, Director, Staff Development, Jewish Childcare Association

The national economic downturn coupled with recent reform efforts at the Administration for Children’s Services have forced many child welfare agencies to rethink and restructure the way they do business. Although many of these reforms are in line with good social work practice, implementing any reform comes with additional costs.

The biggest shift has been seen in residential care programs, where a profound downsizing has brought about the closure of numerous group homes, the elimination of specialized case work services, and a slimming of residential treatment centers. Many of the young people living in these facilities are being transferred to community based foster homes. In order to sustain these youth at a lower level, their care must be supplemented with a full array of wrap-around community based supports.

Bridges to Health (B2H) an agency based, Medicaid funded, enhancement service is now the largest program providing these supports. Although B2H is an outstanding service, it cannot make up for the essential community based programs, like mental health clinics, that have been impacted by the economic downturn. Thus, the multitude of issues that these youth bring back to the communities puts an incredible strain on foster parents who may not have the skills to manage them, especially when the youth are placed in regular versus therapeutic foster homes.

On top of all this, the proposed New York City foster care funding cuts of 5.4% for this year and 8% for next year present an additional worrisome strain on an already taxed system.

Challenges related to staffing and workload also extend to the preventive services arena. Social workers in this practice area are frequently called to advocate with their public officials to maintain a funding safety net beyond the current one-year contract termination as well as to keep caseloads at a manageable 12:1 client to staff ratio.

The new practice norms shaped by these changes have moved child welfare social workers to band together and creatively find ways to manage these increased demands, while also maintaining confidence, zeal and overall solid practice values. At Jewish Child Care Association, a series of self-care practices have been put into play to support staff in these difficult times.

In our Foster Home Services division, the social workers have created a Conditions of Workability group that meets biweekly and addresses workplace concerns, offers collective support, and provides a conduit to voice concerns to senior administration that are present at the meetings. Both our Foster Boarding Home and our Residential programs have adopted the Sanctuary Model® which is a framework for creating a trauma-informed therapeutic culture.

Additionally, all JCCA child welfare social workers are given the opportunity to participate in consultations with expert clinicians on families who are presenting difficult treatment and planning dilemmas. These meetings organized either as a clinical review with the treatment team or as a session with both the treatment team and family, have proven tremendously successful in generating new learning opportunities and alleviating worker’s frustrations.

On a congratulatory front, social workers have the opportunity to send “kudos” in their weekly staff meetings, as well as to attend a series of potluck lunches, thank you breakfasts and culturally themed events that are held throughout the year. Additionally, awards for excellence in practice are given at an annual celebration and notable accomplishments are recorded in the agency’s monthly newsletter.

In many respects, despite the challenging times, professional child welfare social workers are able to rely on their inventiveness, self-knowledge, collaboration with others, and informal agency resources to remain motivated and provide quality services to clients in even the toughest of economic environments.

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