New Britain – Cynthia Caro is a social worker in a city where children are severely affected by drug abuse and poverty.
Twenty years on the job, she hopes to someday find a magic wand so she can give her kids in foster care all the support she thinks they need and deserve. And so she has more time to spend helping them.
Caro’s feelings are not unique. A federal court monitor who regularly reports on the quality of care being provided to abused and neglected children throughout Connecticut has for years been warning that waitlists and inadequate funding levels have made it challenging to provide the educational, medical, mental health and other services foster youth need. The large caseloads social workers have are part of the problem.
By the court monitor’s standards, the 17 children Caro is currently responsible for is too many. The court monitor’s report from last month indicates that 62 percent of the state’s social workers had too many children on their caseload.
On any given day, there are nearly 15,000 youths with an open DCF case. As of Jan. 1, the agency had 1,103 social workers to handle those cases. It’s a ratio that hasn’t budged for years.
That’s about to change – courtesy of a federal judge who in December ordered the state to commit to certain staffing and caseload levels – and, most importantly, to “provide funding and other resources necessary” to make it happen. The order followed the General Assembly’s declining to make such increases.
The department plans to have an additional 120 social workers hired by the end of May.
Ahead of this influx, The Mirror sat down with Caro at her office in New Britain for The Mirror’s Sunday Conversation to hear about what it’s been like being a social worker in Connecticut – and what’s going well and what needs improvement.
What is your typical day like?
I am an adolescent social worker, so typically my cases are foster youth between the ages of 13 and 23, and the plan for them is to stay in care and receive postsecondary education after they reach age 18.
So here’s my day so far. This morning I got a phone call from a foster parent telling me that one of my youth had signed out of care and that we had to work on getting her belongings out of her home.
But a typical day varies. I try to do a to-do list the night before, and sometimes I come in and there’s been a disruption, like there’s a youth whose transportation didn’t show up, so I have to kind of stop what I’m doing and run out the door and go pick them up.
In the morning, I try to get to my provider phone calls, answer e-mails – we get a lot of e-mails – and then just focus on my visits with my youth in the afternoon. I have kids who are in independent living settings. I have youth who are in foster care. I have very few youth who are in a congregate [group home] setting.
How long have your youth typically been in the foster care system?
It varies. I have two girls that I just was assigned to and they just came into care. They disrupted unfortunately from an adoptive home and they’ve been in care less than a year. I have a girl who’s just turning 20, and I’ve been her worker for almost four years. So any length of time.
I think it’s a little different with adolescents because our focus is really on transitioning them to independence versus in different units they really explore different options in regards to finding permanency for those children so that they’re not in [foster care] for an extended period of time.
Could you talk a little bit about what is available for youth transitioning out of foster care, or what you think needs to be available for them?
I always tell my adolescents that my goal is to set them up for success. We work on a transition plan for them, and before they’re 18 we try to really focus on daily life skills. Life skills like budgeting, opening up a checking account, focusing on securing a job, obtaining their vital documents – like their driver’s permit, their license or state ID. Also, just daily life skills like being able to do laundry and cooking.
A lot of our work is focused on what we call the LIST Assessment, which is an inventory of where our kids are in regards to their life skills and what we need to do to support them to master those life skills. So usually a DCF worker or a foster parent or a staff member really focuses on those domains that have been identified as a need with the youth. So that’s what really drives their case plan.
And in their case plan we talk about postsecondary planning because after the age of majority, in order to receive voluntary adolescent services, they have to be in a full-time education program and remain in good standing with the department. So that’s really my focus: getting them through high school and preparing them for what after high school looks like.
How often are foster youth able to meet the agency’s standards and also take a full-time college course load? Is it typical that children are leaving and signing themselves out of DCF care because they just feel like they are done with DCF or is it because they’re not meeting the agency’s requirements?
Once they reach 18 they have the option of signing the DCF800A [form] if they don’t want to be in placement anymore and receive services and be on their own. And then there’s the department issuing a DCF800, which means that they’re not cooperating with their case plan – like they are not in school, or we’ve tried to work with them on various school programs and they’re failing; or they’re not cooperating with their placement and they’re just kind of AWOLing and doing their own thing. I think we try to find a balance.
I like to be optimistic that our kids are doing well because we really try to focus on those life skills, but sometimes our youth are just not ready. They’re not ready to receive services and understand certain requirements for their case to stay open and then that’s when they voluntarily sign out.
How common is it the case that they sign themselves out?
It’s very few of my kids that sign the 800A. Typically it’s something the department issues because they are not meeting standards. And sometimes, you know when we issue a DCF800, they appeal or we rescind it just to kind of show them, ‘Listen, buddy you’ve got to do what we need you to do for you to continue receiving services. So more often than not it’s them really wanting to stay in DCF care and receive services.
The federal court monitor the oversees DCF regularly cites various services that have waitlists and aren’t readily available in certain regions of the state. Do you experience this? Are there certain programs or services that you really would love to see more available for your youth?
Of course. I always say that I’d like to waive my magic DCF wand and get all the support services possible for my youth.
Ideally, I would like to see more transitional living assistance programs, because that’s really a program structured for adolescents. After that program they transition to independent living. They have staff there and they really focus on life skills. They discuss academics and ensure that our kids are making their medical appointments on their own. You know, it’s owning and taking responsibility as they transition to adulthood. So I would like to see a more transitional living assistance programs.
How would you describe your workload. Is it reasonable? Stressful?…
[Takes a deep breath] Stressful. I think that kind of goes hand-in- hand in social work. I think people come into this field knowing the challenges that there are. Do I feel stressed? Absolutely. Stressed because I really want to know that I did the best possible and sometimes I have restrictions, you know like clerical support. I’d love to see more clerical support and other support staff because sometimes that work takes away from me being able to spend more time on my youth because I get stuck having to do the paperwork aspect of the job.
So there are challenges. My caseload: It’s definitely challenging. I know that the agency really is pushing to try to make an impact and lower case loads. I wish that we had whatever resources available so that could happen.
Day in day out, I try to manage the best possible given what I have.
How many youth are on your caseload right now?
I currently have two in-home cases [youth still living with their family] and about 15 youth [in foster homes, group homes or transitional housing] on my caseload.
Potentially I could get up to 20 youth.
Could you talk a little bit about the average amount of time you spend on each youth in foster care?
I’d like to do more, ideally. The fieldwork work is really why I came into this field because that’s the part that I love. But I see my youth once a month in their placement, interact with their staff, with their caregiver, foster parent – whomever it may be.
I spend a significant amount of time on all the other things like attending PPT meetings [meetings to arrange services at school for youth with learning or physical disabilities], doing the paperwork to set up a those meetings if my kid needs additional supports in school, ensuring that they’re up to date with their medical appointments and scheduling medical appointments.
I also do legal paperwork on each of my youth. For each of my youth in care, I file a permanency plan with the court every six months. And every 90 days we have a meeting to review their case plan to make sure that we’re really focusing on their goals.
It would be a little difficult to assign a specific time limit that I spend on each kid. One of my youth might be having a difficult time and she’s AWOLing and you know I need to change her therapist, so I have to really focus my energy on one of my youth. And sometimes my kids who are in college, I just check in with them on my visits once a month and make sure I pay their bills and things like that. So it depends on the need of the client.
What was your caseload like, say, 10 years ago? Has it gotten easier, more difficult, about the same?
It’s probably about the same. I think what may have changed are some of the additional demands of the job. Such as, my kids who are over 18, we weren’t filing permanency plans for them 10 years ago. We also weren’t necessarily doing case reviews where we had to prepare a case plan. We were just doing a case plan between me and the youth. So that changed.
And just not having enough resources – that definitely has changed. I feel like maybe we could benefit from more community services and support staff.
How is the availability of mental health services?
So having enough therapists in the community is definitely a barrier. Also, having enough Spanish-speaking resources for our families and housing supports for not just youth in care but also for our families. There are waiting lists with housing authorities and Section 8 [housing subsidies].
…Mental health is definitely a need. And I understand, you know I have a cousin who’s a clinician. It’s a field where there is a lot of burnout. So unfortunately that also means a wait list because there’s just not enough.
What about parents or the youth just not showing up or making appointments that DCF determined necessary, is that something you experience?
Definitely. We really try to motivate our parents to really follow through, because if the parents aren’t invested in it, then most likely the child won’t be invested in therapy. So that’s definitely a barrier and you know clinicians have, understandably so, a strict policy in regards to attendance. After like three no-shows they close the case. Then we go back to having to refer them and having to get a clinician assigned.
So how do you get them on board?
We really try to empower our clients to understand the importance of it. Because like school, if your parents aren’t invested in school, then chances are your child will not be invested in school.
I mean, I have colleagues who will drive parents to their therapy appointments with their child just to make sure that they are able to attend. We provide bus passes for our clients. You know we have [transportation for those with medical situations] if that’s a barrier for our clients to get to those appointments. We try to facilitate what we can to get them there.
What would you say is the typical reason why youth are entering foster care? Is there a driving force? Are there misconceptions?
I think the reasons are across the board. We’ve seen an increase in cases of human trafficking, and I’ve definitely seen it on my caseload with my adolescents.
Unfortunately, there’s always going to be issues with mental health and substance abuse. We also have issues with educational neglect.
I do have to say that from when I first started 20 years ago, there is a lot more focus on trying to keep kids home, wrapping them around with services. The department is investing money to keep them home, because we know ultimately if we can really figure out what the underlying issues are and provide support to that family, that they’re going to have better outcomes than coming into care.
On the topic of keeping children at home, there’s been some debate about whether that’s putting them at risk. There have been some high-profile deaths of youth in foster care in the news lately. Do you have an opinion if that’s putting youth at higher risk by keeping them at home? If so, is it worth the risk?
You know every case is different. We are an agency where we’re always under the microscope. There’s a lot of scrutiny with DCF, and I always say that if people just worked a day at DCF, they really would understand the type of work we do.
So I think that there’s always going to be risk. Risks because of those issues with mental health, the substance abuse, educational issues, socio-economic issues. So there’s always going to be a level of risk.
You know we have an ongoing joke, that short of me moving in with my clients to ensure that they’re being compliant, there’s going to be a level of risk. But we try to do the best that we can. It’s difficult to manage each and every situation. That’s a hard question to ask because we want to believe that we are making the right decision each and every time.
There has been an increase in opioid deaths in this state and throughout the country. Are you seeing any impacts on children entering the system because of opioid abuse?
I definitely see an impact of how it’s affecting our youth. I think addiction is a serious issue and it definitely impacts the children. We really work with our substance abuse specialists here to really try to navigate some of those issues and see how we can support the families and keep youth home if that’s in the best interest of the child.
So I can imagine you probably get a lot of requests from the youth that you work with. What are some of the most common requests?
Clothing vouchers. They always want a clothing voucher.
Also, if DCF will buy them a car. That’s a big thing when they’re getting their driver’s license.
And they also want to stay with family. I will say that DCF has really come a long way and really trying to reach out to family members or [family friends] to try to keep kids with them. We’ve learned that our kids when they come into care, they want to have a connection to their biological family. So we really try to focus on those long-term connections with our youth. We didn’t do that 20 years ago at DCF. You came into care. We placed you in whatever foster home had availability. Now we do a lot of work in really trying to get our kids with somebody that is familiar to them.
Does DCF provide cars or help them out with getting a car?
We don’t, unfortunately. I wish we did, but we don’t.
What about clothing vouchers?
We do. We’ll write memos if we need to get those approved for our kids.
What would you say has been your best day on the job?
That’s a tough question. There are days that I go home and I feel defeated and ask, ‘Could I have done a better job?’ You know our job is very challenging.
My husband works in the security field and I’m very jealous, because I feel like I can never turn it off. I’m in the shower and I’m like, ‘Oh I didn’t enter that payment. What are going to be the ramifications? I should have called my foster parent back.’ Things of that nature.
But my best days: seeing my kids be successful, like attending a college graduation. I attended one of my girls’ wedding after she had aged out, and having that connection to my kids. And just having our kids say thank you and them really seeing that we tried to do what was best for them. Those are probably my best days at DCF.
Is there something you wish the public better understood about social work and the job you do on a daily basis. Is there something that’s a common misconception about this work or that you really wish people just better understood?
Absolutely. I mean I think there’s definitely a misconception that DCF is just about placing kids in care. That’s definitely not our mission. That really is the last resort.
We do a lot of work with the family, or we try to. Obviously there are situations of imminency. I don’t think the public even realizes that when a kid comes into care that we still meet with the family and try to determine if a plan can be put in place to send them back home. I think the biggest conception is that we want kids to come into care.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.