Children are not widgets. Nor do we want them to be.
Nor are they clients, patients, members or algorhythms, isolated from their full humanity and their origins and inclusion in their biological and extended families. The full needs of vulnerable children and youth can only be addressed by people who are professionally educated to embrace them within an ethical framework that focuses first on their best interests in the context of their family.
We cannot further downgrade the utilization of skilled professional social workers who are best qualified to help these vulnerable children and youth. We must say no to the quick fix that our state Department of Health and Human Resources leadership and their legislative allies are looking for to save a buck while sending any profits to out-of-state corporations.
Our recent history demonstrates that lowering taxes and starving government services does not attract the kinds of industry and jobs that we want in our state. We handicap ourselves by having too many children and families who live in poverty, do not have enough to eat, lack adequate health care, are homeless, have difficulty thriving under even the best teachers, and cannot even trust their elected officials and appointees to protect the water they drink or the air they breathe.
Child welfare is one of the core domains of the social work profession, just as health care is for doctors and nurses and education is for teachers. We already invest federal and state funds, and student tuition, in nationally accredited undergraduate and graduate social work programs throughout West Virginia. These programs graduate more than 300 qualified social workers per year — more than enough graduates to provide child welfare services and address other needs of struggling children, youth and families in our state.
To its credit, our state Legislature has been willing to upgrade salaries for child welfare staff and provide pay differentials to help them resist the lure of working across our state borders. DHHR has also made honest attempts to improve working conditions for these staff once they are on the job.
Why, then, does it feel like DHHR and its legislative allies are dedicated to taking two steps forward and at least three steps back? What will it take to convince these decision-makers that children, youth and families with complex and intractable problems require the same kinds of specialized professionals that we require from the medical profession for heart disease and diabetes or from education for special developmental needs?
Each of us knows the complexities in our own families, even for those of us who have enough to live on, a good education and good jobs. How much more challenging are the complexities of families with multiple problems, including substance use disorders? We cannot just invite someone in from off the street, give them cursory and task-oriented training, and expect them to succeed in helping these families to turn things around.
Sam Hickman, longtime executive director of our state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, recently postulated that one factor in the dramatic increase in the number of children and youth in state custody is that inexperienced child welfare staff members, without professional social work education and credentials, are less capable of developing the kinds of protection plans that can allow kids to stay safely with their families. The development of these kinds of plans does not just involve an in-depth assessment of the strengths and challenges of each person in the family. The caseworkers must also be able to coordinate with the multiple informal and professional players who can help in any given situation: extended family, foster parents, teachers, health and behavioral health care providers, lawyers and the courts, and many others.
Meaningful career paths reward professional social workers through salary increases as they gain experience in their current positions, mentor new staff and/or move into supervision and administration if they have an interest in management.
An agency like DHHR is an ecosystem, involving all parts of the organization. A commitment to and understanding of the value of professionalism is required at all levels in order for each staff person to thrive, regardless of their place in that ecosystem.
In the 1970s and early ’80s, DHHR did not expect child welfare staff to work completely on their own. The agency hired and trained qualified homemakers to visit with families and teach them the skills they needed to take care of their kids. Case aides, some of them former welfare recipients, were paid to do the nitty-gritty work of making and tracking appointments and helping to provide the transportation to get there and back. At their best, the social workers, homemakers and case aides, along with their supervisors and staff from outside agencies, worked together as a team to give families the help they needed to be able to succeed over the long term.
The political pressures to cut government staff eliminated the paraprofessional homemakers and drastically reduced or eliminated case aide positions. Restoring these positions would not only give the caseworkers the support they need to stay on the job, but also make a real difference in the lives of the children, youth and families they all serve.
Needless to say, giving tax breaks and contracts to out-of-state corporations flies in the face of this kind of investment. However, this is an election year, as all of us know. We at least have the opportunity to identify and elect candidates who truly embrace the need to invest in the people of our state, including our most vulnerable kids and families.
In the meantime, we need to protect and advance the professionalization of our current child welfare staff. Federal guidance promotes this kind of professionalization. It is up to each of us to support the logical steps to hire and retain the dedicated professionals who continue to come out of our accredited social work programs. We can also give them the teams they need to work with and rebuild the kind of organizational ecosystem that consistently places a high value on the challenging and difficult work that all of them do in the best interests of our children, youth and families.