Protecting Children from Harm in the Context of Distance Learning

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.

Understanding Foster Care Youth With The Help of the Documentary Foster Care Film

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When I tell people I am a former foster youth they usually have a similar response (something along the lines of) “I would have never guessed that about you.” Since many people wrongfully equate the foster care system with the juvenile detention system, I usually understand the source of their surprise.

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Charell and her Sister

Being a former foster care youth comes with its own set of challenges: lack of family support, lack of money, having to take care oneself from an early age. There are tons of disheartening statistics stating things like less than 50% of foster youth will graduate high school, only 3% will graduate from college and 20% will be homeless by age 18. Challenges like these make it hard for youth in foster care to believe that they’ll move past their current reality.

The truth is foster care kids are less likely to achieve the things they want most in life but that is directly proportional to the fact that they are less likely have people who support them in life. It’s much easier to write groups off as simple statistics then it is to lend a hand to ensure these youth don’t become statistics in the first place.

One way to help foster youth is to take some time to learn about their experience. Yasmin Minstry’s documentary film project – Foster Care Film offers a way for caring individuals and community members to learn more about the lives of foster youth.

Youth-Screening-Film-300x226Her first film – Feeling Wanted (of which I am the subject) – provides an honest portrayal of my journey through the system and life after foster care.

It is the first completed film of several that Minstry has in the works as part of her film project. You can order a copy or check out some powerful clips to gain some engaging insight on foster youth.

Being a former foster youth has given me a unique perspective on life, but it hasn’t made a different breed of human. The people I encountered growing up who knew that are the ones who were able to motivate me to go after what I wanted in life.

Being able to help youth in foster care starts by trying to understand who they are. Checking out Foster Care Film is a good first step in that direction. Here is the Foster Care Film – Feeling Wanted trailer:

Feeling Wanted: Trailer

96 Percent of Social Workers Want Mobile Technology

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How important is mobile technology in social work? We wanted to learn more so we surveyed members of the National Association of Social Workers and asked two questions, “Do you think mobile technology would help you do your job?” and, “Is mobile technology for social workers a priority for your organization?” The results are in and we found that they confirm our belief in the important role that technology can play in a social worker’s life.

An overwhelming majority of respondents (96%) answered yes to the question, “Do you think mobile technology would help you do your job?” On the flip side, only 55% think that mobile technology is a priority in their organization. This means that while many social workers or supervisors think mobile technology would help social workers perform their jobs, they don’t think their organization is focused on providing the tools they need. This type of conflicting ideology can impact morale and ultimately lead to social worker burnout.

   

We firmly believe that mobile tools can help adult and child protective services (CPS) social workers overcome everyday hurdles like these:

1. Time Spent on Paperwork

As one CPS supervisor put it, “You probably spend one-third of your time with families, and two-thirds of your time documenting everything that you’ve done.” Social workers become resigned to losing valuable time trying to work around paper-based processes, having to track down and locate paper files.

2. Accessing Information in the Field

In 2012, worldwide mobile access reached 87%. Between 2011 and 2016, mobile data traffic is expected to grow by 18%. Despite hauling stacks of information with them into the field, sometimes social workers find themselves without the necessary forms or information. Accessibility is not only possible for social workers, it’s critical.

3. Limited Time with Families and Children

CPS caseloads across the country are increasing, but the number of social workers is not. Naturally this leads to spending less time with families and children. This places a heavy burden on agencies and workers, putting families in crisis at even higher risk.

4. Burnout

Social workers are at high risk of burnout and low job satisfaction. Turnover and burnout, while obviously disturbing for social workers, also places a tremendous burden on agencies and the families they serve. Costs of staff turnover are estimated to be between 1/3 and 2/3 of the worker’s annual salary.

5. Data Collection and Quality

The data collection processes and systems created at the state level are designed to collect data in order to meet important state and federal reporting requirements. This often doesn’t sync up with the way social workers work. Because of this, social workers find themselves asking clients to repeat information, which can negatively impact productivity.

We’ve seen that mobile technology designed for social workers can enhance the quality of social work and ultimately give social workers more time to spend with families, which is why social workers became social workers in the first place.

To learn more about how mobile technology can help social workers overcome five common hurdles, download our business brief, 5 Hurdles Blocking Social Worker Productivity and How to Overcome Them.

Austerity Cuts Force UK Child Protection Authorities to Raise Thresholds for Abuse

The latest report findings from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) will come as no surprise to UK Child Protection Social Workers. The report states that Child Protection services are struggling to act as little more than an emergency service due to cuts in resources and a rise in demand for intervention.

nspccThe report, How Safe Are Our Children 2014, details how the number of families needing support has grown due to families being unable to survive financially. Toxically, this is also combined with families feeling the impact of the drastic cuts to early intervention services, such as children’s centres, which could have previously prevented family problems from escalating.

As resources are continuously stretched, the NSPCC report suggests that many councils have been forced to raise the threshold at which they intervene to protect children. Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of the NSPCC, commented: “With record reporting of child abuse, hard-pressed children’s social service departments have little choice but to raise the threshold of where they act.” It is estimated that currently only one out of every nine UK children who are at risk of abuse or neglect are receiving statutory support.

The Government responded to the cuts by arguing that they were improving Child Protection by cutting red tape. This rhetoric fails to ring true in practice when only last week a poll from Coventry City Council revealed that workloads in children’s services have increased by almost 50% in the past two years. With higher caseloads comes less time to do meaningful work with a family and therefore that family’s problems and risk level are very unlikely to decrease. Subsequently the Social Worker’s stress level and amount of paperwork increases as they desperately attempt to “prove on paper” that they are trying their best to keep the child safe. It is a vicious circle and ultimately a disservice to the Social Worker, the child, the family, and society as a whole.

A colleague of mine working as a Social Worker in Child Protection recently told me how her average working day is 12 hours, equating to five hours unpaid over-time each day. Even then, she is not able to meet all of her targets and do everything she needs to do. “That’s the hardest thing about it”, she told me, “when you find yourself breaking promises to families, that you really, genuinely intended to keep, because you know they need that support. But, at the end of the day, I have so many cases and so little time, that all I can do is constantly respond to the most urgent problem. There’s no real prevention work. We’re just constantly fire fighting. This isn’t what I signed up for.”

There is nothing more heartbreaking as a Social Worker to know that nothing you ever do will be enough to help a child, because really, they needed someone to be there for them years before you met them. It never stops hurting when you research the case history of a troubled teenager you work with and read all the abuse and neglect they experienced as a toddler which went unnoticed.

Peter Wanless states: “We know that small and simple interventions early on can and do stop abuse and neglect for a fraction of the cost of trying to tackle it later down the line.”

“Acting alone, children’s social services struggle to be more than an emergency service, getting involved when pain and suffering for children is already entrenched or risk is very high.”

“Successive governments have talked the talk on ‘early intervention’ and joined-up services but have failed to deliver lasting change.”

Let’s be very clear about this- resource shortages are the fault of the policy makers, not the Social Worker’s who regularly work 12 hour days to keep other people’s children safe. The cuts to children services have a devastating impact on multiple levels. They deny parents the resources and opportunities to improve their parenting skills and prevent their children from being taken in to care; they destroy the morale and mental health of the Social Worker’s who know firsthand what is needed to keep children safe and yet are ignored by the decision-makers; and ultimately, as we know all too well, these cuts will lead to more horrific child deaths.

Pregnant and Parenting Youth in Foster Care Epidemic

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Possibly one of the few things more challenging than being a teenage parent is being a teenage parent in foster care.  While the adverse effects of teen pregnancy have been well studied, researchers and social service providers are only recently coming to terms with the growing epidemic of pregnant and parenting youth in foster care.

According to a 2009 Chapin Hall Study  adolescents in foster care are at a significantly higher risk for pregnancy than the general adolescent population:

  • At ages 17 and 18, one third or 33% of young women in foster care were pregnant or parenting  
  • By age 19, more than half or 51 % of young women currently or formerly in foster care were pregnant or parenting, and nearly half of those young women had more than one child
  • 60% of 21-year-old former foster males report impregnating a female partner as compared to 28 % of the general population

To be clear, foster youth are children who have been removed from their families and are in the legal custody of the state. Another way to think of this is, the government is their parents. If that is the reality, than foster youth are basically “our children” and we are doing a pretty shabby job at being their parents.

What is possibly even more troubling than a 50% pregnancy rate is the experiences of these young parents while in foster care:

  • 1 in 5 pregnant teens in foster care received NO prenatal care
  • 22% of teen foster care mothers were investigated for child maltreatment
    (this is way above the 12% of teenage parent in general)
  • 11% of teen foster care mothers had their children removed from their custody 
  • 44% of foster care mothers graduated from high school; 27% for parenting foster fathers
  • Having a child while in foster care was the largest predictor of homelessness after exiting care

Teen pregnancy and parenting is only one of the indicators of poor foster care outcomes. Very few programs and policies address the needs of pregnant and parenting youth in foster care or work to prevent initial or repeat pregnancy.  Other critical foster care outcomes include a significant  increase in the risk of homelessness, incarceration, poor educational attainment, and poverty for foster youth ages 14-18 . But there is something uniquely disturbing about the fact that the children of foster youth are at-risk for entering foster care while their parents are still in foster care.

Though I am in no way suggesting that the U.S. do away with child protective services or foster care, circumstances such as these do beg the question, “Is the government any better at being a parent than the very caregivers these children are removed from?” This is a scary question to ask, but one that social workers must constantly be appraising.  The answer is not “no” but it is not a resounding “yes” either.

By definition, children in foster care come into care from troubled circumstances, putting them at greater risk for a number of poor outcomes. But we must make a guarantee to these children that the new environments we provide for them will make them better off than the environments we took them from. We must transition child welfare into a place where safety and permanency are not our only goals.  Well-being and a better future are essential.

As a child welfare systems change analyst, I applaud the tireless work of child welfare workers and administrations and recognize it is one of the most difficult, yet rewarding, jobs to do. There are so many forces beyond our control and endless administrative hurdles to overcome. But we must still do better. We have to do better or what is the point of the entire system?

References & Resources: 

Boonstra, H.D. (2011). Teen pregnancy among young women in foster care: A primer. Guttermacher Policy Review, 14 (11) pp.8-19.

Center for the Study of Social Policy: Pregnant and Parenting Youth in Foster Care

Children’s Bureau, Administration of Children, Youth, and Families. The AFCARS Report: Preliminary FY 2012 as of July 2013.

Children’s Defense Fund. (2010). Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act Summary.

When the Hope of a Social Worker is Gone

Social Workers go where no other profession goes, and our primary job is to give hope to the hopeless. What happens when the hope of a Social Worker is gone? Social Workers don’t usually receive press unless a child dies or some sort of malfeasance occurs, but this is not the media’s fault. It’s the social worker’s responsibility to advocate and create opportunities to influence discussions occurring in the media. However, when an opportunity arises for a social worker to use a media platform to educate and inform, it often results in a missed opportunity. Instead, the megaphone is used to blame each other or shame the client for being poor, uneducated, homeless, and/or drug addicted.

In February 2013, Vice.com, an online magazine, printed an interview with a young social worker entitled, “Social Work in the Tenderloin Will Kill Something Inside of You”. This article stirred a lot of reaction from the social work community. The magazine had to redact items and pictures from the original article which could have been a breach of confidentiality by the social worker who was the source for the article. However, I read the article in its redacted form.

The social worker described clients as having poor hygiene, not wanting to work, and drug addicted while relying on government assistance. Here is an excerpt:

Twenty messages from the same two or three clients who either scream their financial requests over and over, simply sit there and breathe, or tell you that witches are under their beds waiting for the next blood sacrifice. Paranoid clients like to fixate on witches, Satan, etc. Anyway, we get ready to open and hand out checks to the clients who are either on daily budgets, or who make random check requests. The budgeted clients are the most low-functioning, as they can be restricted to as little as $7 per day in order to curb their harm reduction. They’ll go and spend that $7 on whatever piece of crack they can find, and then two hours later they’re back, begging for more money. Clients will find some really brilliant ways to beg.

Has anyone seen Les Miserables?  The scene described above is just a modern day retelling except, today, government assistance provides enough of a morsel to keep poor people under control. In Les Miserables, poverty and disease drove people to rob the rich in order to have a decent meal or a comfortable place to lay their head. Poverty and starvation was the driving force behind the French Revolution. As a cautionary tale to all our government officials that want to cut needed social safety programs, education, and preventive services, you might want to rethink instituting austerity measures.

TiredAs for the burnt out social worker who did the above interview, I understand feeling burnout and being frustrated with clients. However, my client frustration was exacerbated by the poor work conditions and poor supervision that is often encountered while working in a social service agency. These agencies are poorly structured, lack checks and balances, and accountability with a poor grievance process for both the client and employee. If you have a complaint, there is no one to complain too.

They do not require accreditation standards like hospitals, schools, and law enforcement agencies. Yet, social workers are given statutory authority to make decisions that can affect a child’s life for the rest of their life. If a child dies, the social worker often gets the blame, but the Agency should vicariously be held liable. The job is set up for the social worker to fail from lack of resources, support, failure to institute minimum standards and training, and lack of nationwide paperless system.

Ninety percent of my time in Child Protective Services was spent doing paper work, and I had 10% left to handle a caseload of at least 15 families. Holy crap is the only writable term I can think of to express the increase in my caseload when each family had 3 to 5 kids often not in the same household or the same school.  Can you imagine trying to see all the kids and parents twice a month for medium to low risk and once a week for high risk? It is impossible to do your job correctly and being effective is not even a possibility under the poor work conditions and impossible standards. You are basically providing triage care which creates recidivism. There were many days I cried after work, so I opted for the anti-depressant to help me survive each work day.

Almost all of my co-workers were women who had therapists themselves, on some type of anti-depressant, and self-reported chronic health issues in which I believe were stress related. After dealing with the stress of work, many had their own families to take care of after leaving work. I learned a long time ago not to blame my client because one day I could be in their shoes. I am not saying that you need to be poor or experience oppression to serve others. However, if you lack the understanding of oppression and the ability to have compassion, social work is not the right job for you. For those social workers who do have the requisite skill set, many can attest to the horrible work conditions that is endured while trying to give hope to the hopeless.

Many social workers live in fear of losing their jobs on a daily basis because one mistake could cost your career and/or someone’s life. Once an administrator or supervisor status is achieved, there is very little turn over from supervisory positions. They no longer deal directly with the clients, and they are often protected by governmental immunity even if their supervision result in malfeasance.

In the United States, many direct practice social workers in the public sector are not supported by the National Association of Social Workers either because they may not have a social work degree or a clinical license. The National Association of Social Workers is pushing to prevent any social worker, with a social work degree or not, who does not have a clinical license from using the social work title. I completely disagree with this strategy because a clinical license should not be required for entry level positions that are not providing treatment. Many public sector social workers feel isolated and unsupported which is why so many leave the profession or turn into the burnt out social worker. Most Child Welfare social workers do not even know what the Child Welfare League of America does or who they serve. If not for the States who have unions, human services may not have any organizations advocating for their betterment.

Someone has to advocate for system changes, and someone has to hold membership associations accountable to their mission of uplifting and supporting social workers. If social workers are not meeting desired educational standards, what are we doing to identify the barriers and challenges preventing those standards from being met?

I understand the views I have expressed may not be accepted by main stream social work professionals. However, macro and public sector social workers are the minority in management and policy making positions despite being the majority of those in traditional social work roles.  Policy making positions are routinely held by clinical social workers or Phd’s who have only been in academia or providing individual/family counseling services.

Many social work change agents are undervalued and often overlooked because most can’t afford to spend over 100,000 dollars to obtain a social work graduate degree to work in a $35,000 to 45,000 dollar a year entry level job at a public agency. Unless you are privileged and money is not a concern, a social work advance degree is less accessible. By accepting  students primarily from privileged backgrounds, the social work landscape has moved away from social justice issues and traditional social work roles to an increasingly conservative ideology that ignores the challenges and barriers placed on vulnerable populations created by legislative and administrative policies.

We also conducted a live twitter chat on this topic  with the social work twitter community using the hashtag #SWunited. To view the tweet archive,  go to this link: http://storify.com/SWUnited/social-work-in-the-tenderloin

Some may have strong opinions about my assessment on the current state of the profession.  However, strong opinions are sometimes needed in order to start the conversation, and  I am ready to have the conversation if you are. If anyone has any thoughts on this article, I would love to hear them. There were several rebuttal articles and lots of tweets in response to Vice’s Tenderloin story. I will attach them all for you to read in order to come to your own conclusion.

Also View:
Social Work in the Tenderloin Will Kill Something Inside of You
Social Work in the Tenderloin is Not Hopeless

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