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    Building Families: Social Workers in Foster Care

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    Sponsored by Campbellsville University

    According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, there were approximately 443,000 children in foster care in 2017 with more than one-quarter of those children waiting to be adopted.

    Unfortunately, the foster care system needs help, according to Anne Adcock, program director and assistant professor of social work at Campbellsville University. Some people get into fostering for the wrong reasons, thinking that they’ll be able to live off the money they receive.

    Fortunately, social workers in foster care can help. According to the National Association of Social Work (NASW), social workers play a critical role in child welfare systems, and studies point to social workers’ education linking to better outcomes for children and families. “The foster care system is not perfect, but social workers are there to make it as good as it can be,” Adcock said. How does that happen in roles like the foster care social worker? In an interview, Adcock shared details on job responsibilities and the impact that social workers in foster care have.

    How Foster Care Social Workers Help Children and Families

    Social workers in foster care are often employed by private agencies that have contracts with the state, Adcock explained. The agencies have a number of foster care families who are considered when it’s time to place children into homes.

    Foster care agencies employ social workers who work as therapists for children and those who work as case managers. Case managers, who are also known as foster care social workers, take care of responsibilities like assessing families for suitability, placing children and monitoring children. Regular contact is often made with the family about two to four times a month.

    There are two crucial tasks that encompass how foster care social workers help children and families. “Mainly, the social worker’s role in the foster care system is to make the connections between the family and the kids,” Adcock said. “And then to monitor those relationships to make sure the child is getting what they need and the foster parents are managing that situation well.”

    Making Connections

    Building connections with foster care children and potential families is vital for creating a successful placement. Social workers in foster care must take care in choosing the right home for kids in foster care.

    Once children are removed from their homes by Child Protective Services, according to Adcock, they receive a social worker either through the state or the state will contract out with an agency to provide a social worker. The social worker will begin the process of finding a more permanent foster home.

    In some cases, children have greater needs, such as those with disabilities or behavior problems. In that case, foster care social workers will start searching for what’s known as therapeutic foster homes. Those homes and parents can accept children who need special attention. If that scenario unfolds, social workers will need to work on connecting children with the right therapeutic home. There’s a lot of linking required to find the right environment for those children.

    Monitoring Relationships

    Once a placement is made, foster care social workers will monitor the relationship. Regular contact is kept with at least two visits a month must be in person, at the home, and the remaining visits can be by phone.

    If help is needed, social workers can step in and respond accordingly. “As a crisis comes up on the part of either the parent or the child, they go and take care of those things,” Adcock said. From crisis prevention and response to providing other types of support, there are a number of ways foster care social workers monitor cases.

    • Emotional Support: Foster care children need emotional and behavioral support. “Most of the time these kids also have a therapist,” Adcock said. “The case manager and the therapist kind of work as a team. So, if there are things that the case manager sees that need to be discussed in therapy, they can communicate that to the therapist.” The foster care social worker can also talk with children in general about their concerns and fears, or anything else on their mind. Another way social workers in foster care provide emotional support is by accompanying children at family court. That enables children to receive some help navigating the court system.
    • Financial Support: If children have extra needs that go beyond the monthly stipend parents receive for food, clothing and basic necessities, social workers will ensure they receive what they need.
    • Mediation and Crisis Intervention: Some situations can be difficult to deal with. “A lot of these kids have trauma in their past,” Adcock said. “They have abuse in their past. It’s not uncommon for a foster child to have significant behavior problems . . . Sometimes they will run away from the foster care home. I know I had a former student that was in a foster care agency, and the kid just took off.” The social worker in that case was out with the police helping look for the child. In other instances, such as when foster parents have proven to be inadequate, the social worker may need to correct the situation or remove the child from the foster home.
    • Respite Care: Parents can request respite care for circumstances when they cannot care for foster children. For example, if a parent has surgery or an out-of-town family reunion, there are respite homes social workers can locate to take children for a few days.

    The Rewarding Nature of Working in Foster Care

    There are some tough times for social workers in foster care, but that’s not always the case. “Overall, it’s rewarding, because they get connected to the kids and the kids rely on them,” Adcock said. “Sometimes they’re the only one that the kid trusts, and that’s a good thing.”

    There are times that demonstrate why foster care social workers dedicate their lives to helping children and families. “If everything goes well, they’re (reunited) with their original family,” Adcock said. “The best times, I think, for a lot of my former students . . .  is when an adoption goes through. When the foster care family is the right fit, everybody’s happy, and it moves forward to adoption . . . I think those are the best days.”

    Optional pull quote: “When the foster care family is the right fit, everybody’s happy, and it moves forward to adoption . . . I think those are the best days.”

    Another great part of social work is that there’s always room to move up. Foster care social workers, or case managers, can earn their master’s degree and become a therapist. That enables them to have some variety while staying in the foster care specialty.

    Career Information for Foster Care Social Workers

    Salary and Job Outlook

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers earn a median annual wage of $47,980 per year. Starting salaries will be less when starting out, according to Adcock, but there is plenty of growth in this area. “Especially if someone with their BSW moves forward and gets their MSW,” she added. “That’s where the most significant growth in earnings would come. Typically, there’s a $10,000 to $15,000 salary difference right off the bat, depending on where you are.”

    Employment for all social workers is projected to grow 16 percent by 2026, according to the BLS. That figure is more than double the average percentage increase for all occupations, which is 7 percent. According to Adcock, there is a special need for social workers in foster care. Private foster care agencies are always hiring, given the demand that has resulted from states contracting their work to those agencies. “And then a lot of foster care agencies are expanding their services and starting to provide alcohol and drug addiction treatment services for juveniles,” Adcock said.

    Educational Requirements

    The BLS noted that social workers need a bachelor’s degree. Providing counseling services as a clinical social worker requires a master’s degree in social work.

    An online bachelor’s degree in social work can allow you to become a foster care social worker. You’ll develop an understanding of the basics of social work while gaining, hands-on, practical experience in the field. There’s also a course, “Foster Care & Adoption,” that covers the foster care specialty.

    Campbellsville University’s program lets you study in a convenient, flexible environment. Gain the skills and knowledge needed to become a social worker at an institution that was ranked the 4th most affordable among Christian colleges in the United States. The program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

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    Child Welfare

    Single Father Adopts Five Siblings from Foster Care System

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    Back in October of 2020, single father Robert Carter adopted a set of five siblings so that they would never again be separated by the foster care system. Robert became inspired to foster after being split up from many of his own brothers and sisters when he entered the system at the age of 12. Following his emancipation, Robert became legally responsible for two of his siblings, which inspired him to continue to expand his family. He became a foster father to three of the five siblings and quickly realized that it was his purpose to adopt all five children.

    A Systemic Issue

    There are currently over 400,000 children in the foster care system, two-thirds of whom have a sibling in the system as well.  Many of these children are separated from their siblings for reasons including a lack of families able to foster sibling groups, diverse needs of children and lack of resources for finding placements. Other siblings may be more likely to be separated by social workers due to myths that sibling sets will not integrate as well into a new family dynamic or that it is in the best interests of a parentified older child to be removed from their siblings. 

    Sibling separations, like Carter and his children experienced, often compounds the trauma that children in the system endure. In a foster care system where 63% of children are removed from their homes due to parental neglect, sibling relationships help to provide much needed stability and emotional support. These sustained relationships allow sibling sets to have greater success in school, better relationships with foster parents, more successful permanency outcomes, and better mental health. Yet, until the last couple of decades, the advantages of keeping siblings together were largely ignored from a policy perspective.

    Policy’s Influence

    In 2008 this changed when keeping siblings together became national priority when the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act was passed. This Act “requires a state plan to provide for reasonable efforts for joint placement of siblings in the same foster care, kinship guardianship, or adoptive placement unless it would be contrary to the safety or wellbeing of any of them.” This act also requires that children who are unable to be placed with their siblings be allowed frequent visits with their other siblings.  

    While sibling placement is defined as a priority on the federal level, states may interpret the implementation of a plan differently. As of 2018, only 37 states have statutes requiring these reasonable efforts to keep siblings together during the placement process. States may often vary in their definition of “sibling” as well. While children often define their siblings as those who grew up with them, including step-siblings, often state laws only define sibling relationships in terms of blood relations. 

    Certain states, such as Oregon, have a Sibling Bill of Rights to help protect children in the foster care system.  Some of these rights include being able “to live in the same home as (their) sibling if possible” and “to live with foster parents who are trained on the importance of sibling relationships.” Bills like these offer children autonomy and protection when entering the system so that they can advocate for themselves. 

    As laws continue to evolve to protect children in foster care like Robert and his kids, Robert hopes that foster and adoptive parents will step up to help keep families together. Here’s what he said in an interview with Aol.com:

    “A lot of people think you have to be married to adopt or be a foster parent. I want people to know: No matter the situation, as long as you have the means to take care of a child [you can] become a foster parent,” he explains. “We have so many kids still in custody, there are 400 kids in Ohio waiting on forever homes. And I am happy that I was able to help encourage and inspire other people to step up.” 

    Currently, over 100,000 children are to be adopted, many of which risk being separated from their siblings. You can help to keep these children together by becoming a foster parent for a sibling set and learning more about the adoption process

    If you are unable to adopt or foster right now, research your state’s sibling protection measures and help advocate for policies that support sibling reunification.

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    Child Welfare

    Protecting Children from Harm in the Context of Distance Learning

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    The nation saw an uptick in domestic violence calls in the midst of the pandemic and the shutdown. The convergence of social isolation, economic pressure, and psychological stress created favorable conditions for abuse to occur. Adults are not the only victims of abuse in the home. Children, too, are vulnerable. History shows that violence against children and child exploitation intensify under conditions of isolation and economic pressure. While the pandemic may be temporary, child abuse often has long-term consequences.

    School systems play a vital role in intervening in the lives of vulnerable children. In fact, schools make 21% of the reports to child protective services according to The Washington Post. When COVID-19 forced the schools to close, states saw a drastic drop in the number of children being referred to CPS. Unfortunately, this reduction did not mean that the incidence of abuse decreased. Indeed, as reports to CPS dropped, ER doctors saw a rise in more severe cases of abuse. Child abuse not only persisted, but it went unchecked during the shutdown. Without school personnel, community workers, medical and dental personnel, and other mandated reporters, there was no watchdog to report the abuse until children sustained injuries severe enough to warrant medical attention.

    Clearly, schools serve a vital function in protecting children from harm. Now more than ever, they need to be alert and responsive to abuse as children return to school virtually. Distance learning presents unique opportunities and challenges that should be addressed proactively. Social workers can and should play a leadership role in adapting child welfare protocols for distance learning and retraining school personnel to identify and report suspicions of child abuse and neglect. This article outlines a proposed curriculum for child abuse and neglect reporting in the context of distance learning.

    School personnel should be well-equipped to spot signs of child abuse and neglect in the context of distance learning. Asynchronous instruction affords teachers a glimpse into students’ homes. In addition to any disclosures of abuse, teachers should be especially attentive to:

    • Verbal threats of harm, hidden, unexplained, suspicious, and/or repeated injuries
    • Suicidal ideation in students
    • Sexually inappropriate behaviors or images
    • Weariness when an adult is present or approaches the student
    • Excessive dirtiness or lack of proper hygiene in the home or the student
    • Illegal substances or evidence of impairment in the caregiver
    • Evidence of malnourishment in the student

    School staff should also note that it is illegal under most state laws for children to be home alone unless they have demonstrated sufficient maturity, and there are safety structures in place. Young children should not be home alone. Furthermore, children with a record of behavior or emotional problems (e.g. frequent suspensions) should not be in the home unattended. Children who are able to be home alone should be able to access safe adults in case of an emergency, and there should not be hazardous conditions or items present. Children who can take care of themselves may not be mature enough or capable of taking care of younger children. School staff members play a critical role in monitoring these conditions. Clear steps should be outlined for reporting any safety concerns or suspicions in a timely and accurate manner to school personnel (e.g. principal, guidance counselor) and child protective services.

    Because teachers will be exposed to the live conditions of the home, they have to be prepared to respond to crisis situations. Crisis management in the context of distance learning is different from that in more traditional settings because the staff person is physically distant from the student, and there may not be another adult present with the child for reinforcement. As a result, they are at a disadvantage in terms of their ability to intervene.

    Still, there are measures staff can take to manage the crisis from afar. In the event of an imminent threat to the safety of a student, staff can adapt telehealth protocols such as:

    (1) call local 911/EMS while maintaining contact with the student

    (2) identify bystanders who may be able to assist by providing information, monitoring the student, and/or intervening, as appropriate

    (3) obtain the student’s physical location, an alternate contact in case of a disconnection or other technical issue, and contact information for the student’s caregiver

    (4) while maintaining contact with the student, contact the caregiver to advise him/her of the situation

    School personnel has an important responsibility in monitoring student attendance. Countless children can be lost to human trafficking and exploitation if schools falter in this duty. As such, the onus is on the schools to locate children who do not report for school. Students should be expected, at a minimum, to check in occasionally so that school personnel can check on their well-being.

    Finally, school administrators should be cognizant of the increased risk of exploitation by school staff when supervision and monitoring are lacking. Clear codes of conduct should be put in place or adapted to guide online interactions between students and school staff. Outside meetups should be prohibited unless they occur at school during school hours with proper supervision. Administrators should ‘‘float’’ from class to class to monitor interactions and conduct in the virtual classrooms. Caregivers should also be encouraged to monitor online learning. An adult should be present at all times during synchronous sessions to supervise and provide support.

    Schools play a critical role in protecting our most vulnerable population. Critical attention should be given to adapting child welfare protocols for distance learning so that school personnel can make the necessary efforts to be effective in this capacity under these unprecedented conditions. Social workers should proactively address this issue and retrain school staff in child welfare protocols.

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    Child Welfare

    Normal Childhood Behaviour Misconstrued and How Assessments Are Helpful

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    There is a quote attributed to Sigmund Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. So too of childhood behaviour and incidents; they may be simply within the range of normal childhood life. However, in the context of high conflict separated parents, the simple explanation can get transplanted with extraordinary suspicions and theories.

    Normal childhood development has toddler-age children exploring their bodies, discovering the genitals and anus and taking pleasure from self-touching. They are at the toilet training stage of life and hence are drawn by normal parenting behaviour to attend to these body parts. In intact families as children are observed to engage in self-stimulation and genital play, they are simply redirected to either stop or to engage privately at appropriate time and place. In the context of high conflict separated parents, there is a risk to ascribe these childhood behaviours to sinister behaviour on the part of one of the parents. So a parent may inadvertently bring greater attention to the child’s behaviour and thus actually reinforce the concerning behaviour themselves while at the same time alleging sexual abuse at the hands of the other parent.

    As preschoolers, children take flight on playground equipment. They may be learning to ride their two-wheeler. Hence this is a time of childhood injuries, particularly bruises, bumped heads and broken arms. In the context of high conflict separated parents, a parent may be suspicious of child-abuse in view of injuries and use the situation to allege physical abuse or at least neglect. However, and again, even in intact families, children can get hurt; bump their heads and fall from bikes and playground equipment.

    As school-age children try to get their own way, they naturally try to pit parents against each other. They will use whatever strategy works. Kids may tell you that other kids are getting or doing what is desired or they may tell you that the “other parent” let’s them do as requested. In intact families, parents simply call their children on manipulative behaviour or at least check with the other parent to determine if what the child is saying is true. However, in the context of high conflict separated parents, a parent may take what a child says at face value and believe that the other parent is undermining their own parenting or the values of the child.

    In intact families or even between separated parents with good communication, normal childhood events tend not to escalate with suspicion and drama. Issues are nipped in the bud and children are redirected to appropriate behaviour. Injuries are attended to without additional fanfare. A parent may feel guilty for a child’s injury, but not blamed per se.

    In the context of high conflict separated parents, normal childhood behaviour and incidents can take on epic proportions. Otherwise, normal behaviour can lead to suspicion or be used against a parent to undermine care and custody. As one parent cries foul, the other cries parental alienation syndrome. The fight is on and heats up to the point of boiling over. The child is caught in the middle and their behaviour escalates as a result. Both parents then use the child’s behaviour as evidence of their own claim against the other.

    Here is where a good assessment is so necessary. The assessor will tease out normal from abnormal childhood behaviour and incidents and determine how much of a child’s behaviour is attributable to just the conflict between the parents versus truly sinister behaviour deliberately aimed at harming or neglecting a child.

    Parents beware though. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, despite suspicion.

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