For some 20 years I have made the point whenever I could – respectfully I think - in meetings with ACS, conversations with Commissioners, newspaper articles, TV interviews, etc. that caseloads for Case Workers in family foster care programs in NYC were just too high. I could have pre-empted Jimmy McMillan, the founder of the "Rent is Too Damn High" Party, who ran for Governor and Mayor, by forming the "Caseloads are Too Damn High" Party. I certainly would have gotten all the votes of anyone who worked in child welfare.
The reality is that there has just been no way for Caseworker to provide the level of services that were required by NY State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) and NYC Children's Services (ACS) with caseloads that were 18-20 children plus a few who were on trial discharge or AWOL. With a caseload size like this it was impossible for a Caseworker to provide the services that foster children and their families needed while also meeting requirements that included attendance at frequent Family Court hearings, making home visits, supervising visitation between a child and their parents, consulting with other service providers involved with the child's life, attending required trainings, talking with attorneys, visiting a child's school, tracking down youth who were AWOL, documenting everything they did in the all too complicated electronic case record called CONNECTIONS, while also attending staff meetings, supervisory conferences and trainings, in addition to using subways and buses to travel everywhere, dealing with getting the flu and taking well deserved vacation time! It was all just impossible!
An OCFS report released in 2006 recommended that caseloads be reduced to 11-12 children per Case Worker. One of the findings included in the report indicated that family foster care Case Workers spent an average of 35-90 minutes a month in face-to-face contacts with a child. Imagine if your child was in foster care and the worker assigned to oversee the safety of your child and their return to you only saw your child 35-90 minutes a month!
Since that report was finalized over 7 years ago, there have only more demands placed on Case Workers with increased visitation requirements, Family Team Conferences, helping youth apply for library cards, participating in red flag meetings, making sure they did an annual credit check with every adolescent on their case load, insuring more sibling visits, and the list goes on.
Every additional demand, however large or small, was always a good thing for the child and their family. And yet, nothing was ever taken off a Caseworker's plate when new requirements were added to it. As Jim Purcell, CEO of COFCCA, would say "If ACS cannot prioritize all the tasks that Case Workers have to do that we all know are impossible for them to do completely, then we are essentially leaving it up to the Case Worker to decide what to do and what not to do with every case and every child. Yet, if something does not get done or if something goes very wrong, who do we blame?"
Over a year ago, ACS began a pilot project with 5 of our fellow agencies – Coalition for Hispanic Families, Good Shepherd Services, JCCA, NY Foundling and St. Dominic's. Called ChildSuccessNYC (CSNYC), it incorporates several evidence-based and evidence-supported approaches in working with parents, foster parents and teens. It also includes reducing caseloads for Case Workers. Taken together, these approaches have had a dramatic impact on reducing length of stay in foster care and getting children home or to adoption much sooner. It also improved employee satisfaction with their job and reduced staff turnover.
Much was learned from this pilot project and all for the better. With the recent approval of a Federal Title IV-e Waiver, ACS can now roll out CSNYC for all children in family foster care in NYC. Besides being better prepared to roll out CSNYC in the next round that begins January 2014, ACS decided, at the prompting of the pilot agencies, to reduce caseloads even more to 10 children per worker. This is a significant reduction from the 18-20 children per worker that most agencies do. In addition, ACS reduced the Supervisor to Case Worker ratio to 1:4. Every agency is a little different, but at MercyFirst our Casework Supervisors was responsible for 5 Case Workers each with 20 foster children for a total of 100 children to oversee. With CSNYC it means a Casework Supervisor will oversee 4 Case Workers with 10 children each for a total of 40 children to oversee or a 60% reduction. These improvements do not change the reality of how difficult and complicated this work is but it does make the workload do-able.
I mentioned to someone at ACS recently that I have raised this issue of caseload size and their impact on the quality of services and staff retention for 20 years. With MercyFirst being part of this next round of CSNYC, I told her that I won't have anything to complain about. She smiled at me and said "I'm sure you will think of something!" That is probably true but for now I only want to give recognition where recognition is due. I salute Commissioner Richter and his staff for making this happen – perhaps the best thing to happen to family foster care in a very long time! You go ACS!
Jerry McCaffery, President/CEO of MercyFirst