The majority of Texas’ Child Protective Services workers are not social workers. Instead, Texas employs people with degrees in math, history, science, art and music to make life-altering decisions about vulnerable families and children. You don’t even need a bachelor’s degree. As our state grapples with workforce issues in Child Protective Services, it’s time to address the workplace environment that has discouraged social workers from applying and working there.
Social workers are licensed professionals who have received specific education from accredited schools. These professionals spend years learning and developing their understanding of children and families within the context of their environment. Students learn the fundamentals of what drives human behavior and how to approach complex social issues from multiple perspectives. Despite some misconceptions, students are not encouraged to remove children from their homes. They are trained to work with families to heal the whole family and strengthen communities. This perspective is better for families and taxpayers.
Unlike students in other majors who work at Child Protective Services, social work students complete supervised field placements where they receive support and intense feedback about their performance. Each year, social work programs across Texas recruit students to complete field placements at Child Protective Services. Social work programs receive a small amount of federal funds to pay students’ tuition as long as they commit to working at Child Protective Services after they graduate. But sadly, many schools struggle to find students interested because of the reputation of Child Protective Services.
Why? Because Child Protective Services is not a place where social workers want to work. Child Protective Services workers make less than the underpaid teachers in our state. They frequently work without taking time off for vacations or family emergencies because they fear no one will work their cases if they are gone. They take their work home with them daily and finish paperwork at night, so they can make contact with kids on their caseloads after school hours. They take money out of their own pockets to buy a child a meal or some other essential. They miss spending time with their own children to take care of Texas’ children.
But what crushes good workers is the unsupportive and often hostile work environment. Many students have described a culture of fear where numbers are valued more than quality outcomes. Social workers are professionally trained to effectively deal with child maltreatment, substance use, mental health and family violence and are committed to addressing the impact of trauma on children. Social workers can handle the day-to-day work of Child Protective Services better than any other profession, but social workers at Child Protective Services are underpaid and devalued, and they have left the agency. Social workers have been told they think and care too much, spending too much time with the families and not closing enough cases.
Monica Faulkner is the director of the Texas Institute for Child and Family Wellbeing in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. Will Francis is the government relations director at the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers and a former Child Protective Services worker.