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Practice Makes Perfect

  1. Remaining staff must add, to their already heavy caseloads, the families that were served by the departing staff

  2. The families, most of whom are involuntary clients, must have yet another stranger intertwined in their lives. The engagement process starts over and can become stilted by mistrust and an unwillingness to trust yet another worker. Often permanency is delayed because the new worker may not be privy to all of the case history, forcing them to start back at square one. This causes frustration and hopelessness in families who are tenuous about the need for change in the first place.

  3. New, inexperienced workers have the book knowledge but very few practice skills. And unfortunately new worker training often focuses on "the mechanics of what to do" and not "how to engage, assess and collaborate with families". How important is the lack of hands on training, modeling and coaching to the success of Permanency? CRITICAL! With the ever growing need for social workers to replace departing staff, agencis are hiring workers who might not be as equipped as needed for the job. Social Work degrees once required attendance for 4 years at an accredited university and two field internships. In class, students would participate in interactive discussions, partnering and role play practice for learned skills. However, almost every major university now offers on-line Social Work degrees. While on-line courses do allow non-traditional students to obtain a degree while working or caring for a family, the social aspect of skill building can be hard to capture over a computer. To be fair, many colleges have weekend skill building labs to address the need for interaction and internships are still required. However, while on-line graduates are certainly qualified to practice social work, more practice is needed at the agency level before assigning them a caseload of vulnerable families. Good outcomes such as Permanency and Well Being are the result of family engagement, careful assesment of underlying needs and an ability to creatively craft successful interventions. These skills are not innate, but must be developed with new staff. High turnover in CW has also forced agencies to hire staff with "related degrees" to perform the same duties as BSW and MSW staff. These degrees can be: counseling, criminal justice, communication and even English. I pass no judgement on this necessary talent acquisition, as I was one of them, until I obtained my MSW. Some of the best family advocates and child protectors have come to the agency as caseworkers. But it is an important fact to point out as it relates to the dire need for more holistic and practice-oriented new worker training. I had the benefit, decades ago, of having a wonderful practice mentor, who guided me in seeking and finding underlying needs as well as engaging the family to partnership. I credit that mentor with changing my practice. To truly ensure that new child welfare staff are skilled in engagement with and assessment of families, the agency needs to commit to a longer, more in depth training model for new staff which should include practice mentors. Most new worker training combines policy, procedures, agency expectations and "how to complete" assessment and case planning forms. There is additional training often on underlying needs assessment and creating treatment plans. Those are excellent things to learn. What I have observed, however, is that new workers who complete their training, understand the words but they do not always understand the practice. Nor have they been mentored or coached. I have long advocated for practice coaches: those experienced and successful staff who understand the need for true engagement and collaboration. Practice coaches could travel into counties, mentoring new or struggling workers. The mentoring would involve meeting with the worker and having them to identify a difficult case. The practice coach would review the record with the staff, discuss the difficulties and map out a plan with the worker. Everything would happen collaboratively. Then the coach would go to the home with the worker to model family engagement, collaboration and joining with the family. Together, they would hone the assessment. Once the comprehensive assessment has identified the underlying needs and targeted goals, the Practice coach would model a family treatment team meeting demonstrating, with the staff, how to gain agreement and partnership with the family. The approach seems overly simple. And it is. But, too many times, we are not giving new and struggling workers that time to observe, discuss and hone their practice. There is an assumption at the higher levels that supervisors are doing this type of hands on mentoring. But the other cost of high turnover is the overwhelmed supervisor: juggling, reassigning and sometimes even working abandoned cases. It is naive to tthink that new and struggling workers get what they need to move families towards Well Being. So why do states not have this asset? Two reasons come to mind: the cost assocoated with creating this position and the assumption that line supervisors have the time and the ability to do this hands-on mentoring. I have already spoken to the fallacy that supervisors have the time to mentor best case practice with each of their workers this closely. The cost, at first, appears to be the barrier. However, let's factor in the costs of:

  4. Longer stays in foster care

  5. Families lingering in the system

  6. New worker turnover. What we would find is that spending the resources on the front end to better prepare staff for the arduous and complex job of working with vulnerable families, could actually save the agency money on the back end. As I said: the cracks are there and the bridge is weakened. Developing practice coaches and mentors could more fully prepare new staff to become more competent and more fulfilled workers. When you look at the children and families who benefit from those increased skills... Isn't it worth it?

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