Average caseloads in well over half of the agencies represented in the survey exceed recommended caseload guidelines.
Child welfare workers perform challenging jobs. Whether a worker is investigating allegations of abuse or neglect, providing ongoing services to families whose children have been placed in foster care or are at risk of being removed from the home, or locating adoptive homes, every child and every family demands considerable time and attention if they are to be helped.
"Caseloads" is not a monolithic concept, as the type and mix of cases workers carry varies from agency to agency. Several factors make comparisons between different agencies difficult. For example, some workers handle only one type of case -- e.g. investigations, in-home protective services, out-of-home services, family preservation services, adoptions, recruitment and training of foster and adoptive parents, etc. -- while others may handle two or more different types of cases. In some jurisdictions, county child welfare workers serve as the primary caseworker for children in care, while in others the county workers oversee workers employed by private (almost exclusively non-profit) agencies, who in turn serve as the children’s primary caseworkers. In addition, some agencies measure caseloads in families per worker, while others measure caseloads based on the number of children per worker. Finally, it is important to remember that caseloads do not always accurately reflect workload, as some cases invariably are more complex and require more time than others.
Below we report on average caseloads in four areas: investigations, in-home protective services, out-of-home services (i.e. for families and children removed from the home) and family preservation services. Family preservation workers provide particularly intensive services to families for a limited duration of time in an effort to help the family get back on its feet and stay together. However, it should be noted, different agencies define family preservation services more loosely than others. The figures assume each worker carries only one type of caseload. Where workers carry more than one type of case, we have done our best to adjust the numbers accordingly.
While unsurprising to anyone who works in child welfare, the survey results on caseloads are alarming. Caseloads for workers in many child welfare agencies are far too high.
Recommended Guidelines. The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) published caseload guidelines for child welfare social workers in June 1993. CWLA recommends that workers investigating allegations of abuse and neglect carry at most 12 active cases per month. Workers carrying ongoing in-home protective services cases should carry no more than 15-17 families, while those providing intensive family preservation services should serve between 2 and 6 families at a given time.
CWLA suggests at most 12 - 15 children in family foster care (out-of-home services) per worker.
Survey Results. Average caseloads for workers in far less than half of the agencies represented in the survey met the CWLA guidelines for any of the four types of cases. Just over 25% had average caseloads at or below the guidelines for investigations; 43% came in under the guidelines for in-home protective services; only 11% had average caseloads within CWLA’s recommendations for out-of-home services; and under 30% had caseloads equal to or less than the guidelines for family preservation services. Of course, at any given time some workers will be carrying caseloads above the average. In a few agencies, caseloads may exceed 40 and even 50 cases per worker.
Tables 4-A through 4-D compare the average caseloads for investigations, in-home protective services, out-of-home services and family preservation services reported in the surveys with CWLA's recommended guidelines.
Number of Families Per Worker
Number of Families Per Worker
Number of Families Per Worker
Number of Families Per Worker
Due to differences in how figures were reported in the surveys, the above tables reflect some adjustment and estimation on the part of AFSCME Department of Public Policy. Some survey respondents did not provide caseload information for investigations.
The figures for out-of-home services and family preservation services warrant additional comment. Caseloads for out-of-home services may actually be worse because most affiliates reported workers’ caseloads in families whereas CWLA recommends a maximum of 12 -15 children in foster care per worker. CWLA’s methodology makes sense, since siblings often are placed in different foster homes. Thus, if a family has 2 children who both have been removed from their home but placed with different foster families, the worker will have considerably more work than if the family only has one child removed from the home. In comparing the survey results to CWLA’s guidelines for out-of-home services, our survey assumes that each family only has one child in placement. This understates the problem of high caseloads, however, because some families undoubtedly have more than one child in placement, raising the average number of children (versus families) each worker carries.
As for family preservation, these workers, in theory, offer some families very intensive services for a limited duration of time. Because the services offered are intended to be considerably more intensive than ordinary in-home protective services, workers need to be able to spend significantly more time with the families in their caseload. However, almost 60% of the affiliates representing family preservation workers report caseloads for these workers which are as high as caseloads for workers handling regular protective services cases. Over 40% reported family preservation caseloads between 21 and 40 families -- clearly far too high to provide intensive intervention.
Additional Hurdles Faced By Workers Juggling Excessive Caseloads. Social workers face numerous constraints on the resources available to them and demands on their time which make it even more difficult to give each case the time and attention it deserves. Thirteen (13) affiliates, for example, reported that travel consumes between 10 and 20 hours per week of many workers’ time. In addition to travel, the most frequently cited issues which take up large amounts of social workers’ time include:
- Time spent in court;
- Filling out paper work and other documentation and a lack of clerical support;
- Attending staff meetings; and
- Transporting clients to medical and counseling appointments, family visits, court and other destinations.
Other factors identified include the increased complexity and service needs of cases; unfilled vacancies; time spent locating placements and other referrals for clients; monitoring visits between parents and children; and visiting children; placed out-of-county or out-of-state.
Few Agency-Specific Standards. Few child welfare agencies take even what may be the simplest first step in getting caseloads under control -- namely, establishing a maximum permissible level. Over 70% reported that no maximum standards exist -- let alone that sufficient staff have been hired to meet such standards. Only 5 affiliates -- in Illinois, Philadelphia and 3 counties in Ohio -- reported the existence of a ceiling on caseloads for all types of cases. Butler County, Ohio has established a ceiling for family preservation cases; Florida's Western Panhandle reported a ceiling for investigations.
Caseload Trends: Are We Making Progress? Unfortunately, not according to this survey, which shows that caseloads generally have been on the rise. Over 60% of the affiliates reported an increase in caseloads in recent years; only 4 reported a decline. The most commonly cited reasons for rising caseloads include high turnover or an increase in vacancies, an increase in the number of cases and a hiring freeze. Other reasons include court mandates, legislation, privatization and restructuring of services.
Where caseloads have declined, Illinois, Delaware and Philadelphia attributed the improvement, at least in part, to an increase in the number of full time employees, not a decrease in cases. Illinois also pointed to (1) a consent decree governing maximum caseload levels, which in turn prompted legislation addressing caseloads; (2) state legislation which removed
"financial negligence" cases -- cases involving, for example, inadequate clothing or housing -- from the jurisdiction of the child welfare agency, which in turn resulted in a decrease in cases handled by child welfare workers; and (3) a restructuring of services in which caseloads and wrap-around services are organized geographically, thereby enhancing workers’ efficiency.
Of course, a decline in caseloads does not always reflect a positive policy decision or an easing of workloads. In addition to an increase in the number of FTEs in Delaware, that State also directed a massive statewide closure of cases without completing normal policies and procedure. Cuyahoga County, Ohio (Cleveland) decreased caseloads in investigations simply by making workers complete their investigations and close cases faster. Caseloads declined in Milwaukee following the State's takeover of intake and investigations and the privatization of 60% of foster care services. Illinois also has experienced an increase in privatization. Lawrence County, Ohio increased the number of FTEs performing investigations and improved caseloads for these workers, but did so at the expense of FTEs in protective and out-of-home services, where caseloads increased.
AFSCME Fights for Reduced Caseloads
Facing caseloads well above the guidelines recommended by the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), AFSCME Council 81 in Delaware turned its attention to the State legislature to force the State to hire more workers. While there is still more work to be done, the Union’s efforts have paid off. On June 30, 1998, Delaware’s State legislature passed child welfare and child care caseload reduction legislation, which has been signed by the Governor. The legislation directs the Division of Family Services and the State Budget Office to project the number of child abuse and neglect cases each year. The General Assembly must then provide sufficient funding to ensure staffing levels close to CWLA guidelines. The legislation also provides that, in the event caseloads exceed projections by more than 10%, the Budget Office shall authorize the employment of temporary seasonal positions to bring caseloads within the State’s standards -- however, this directive is contingent upon the availability of funds and seasonal workers, while AFSCME members, do not get the same benefits as regular bargaining unit employees.
Although caseloads remain high, Local 990, Council 40 in Wisconsin pursued another, traditional strategy to restrain growing caseloads: collective bargaining. In 1989, in response to cuts in staff, Local 990 negotiated a side letter to its collective bargaining agreement mandating a minimum staffing level.