13 March 2008

An Impossible Job

Wanted: men and women willing to walk into strange buildings in dangerous neighborhoods, be screamed at by unhinged individuals — perhaps in a language you do not understand — and, on occasion, forcibly remove a child from the custody of a parent because the alternative could have tragic consequences. . . .

[In New York City's Children's Services agency as] in other child welfare agencies across the country . . . the average caseworker stays less than two years, and that includes some five months of training."

From here.

My sister-in-law did this job in New York City for something close to the average tenure, before moving West, getting her Master's in Social Work, and moving on to rather less intense pursuits. She still carries the crazy war stories with her.

In fairness, lots of jobs, like starting a small business and working as a K-12 teacher, also have very high turnover in the early years of employment, and other jobs, like military and peace corps service, are designed with the notion that the vast majority of people will serve for only one tour of only a few years.

Historically, although peacetime, all volunteer military service produced more career soldiers, one of the reasons for the usual pattern was the what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, which was previously known by names such as "battle fatigue" renders a large percentage of soldiers incapable of functioning after too much intense service.

Maybe this is a job that simply cannot be made better, just as one can't make serving as an infantry soldier in combat less stessful. If so, perhaps the best solution is to simply come to terms with that reality and stop designing the job with the assumption that people will serve for more than a few years.

Of course, there are steps that can be taken to find the right people for the job and to make the job better too.

The source article in the New York Times, in addition to noting frank ads designed to encourage the right kind of people to apply, also notes that:

[L]imiting the number of cases assigned to each worker is the key to effectiveness and retaining workers.

In 2006, shortly after the death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown thrust the agency into the limelight, the number of cases soared, with workers handling, on average, 22 cases each.

A caseworker . . . should have to handle no more than 12 ongoing investigations. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has committed to hiring enough people to bring the average caseload down, and workers now average 11.5 cases each.

But the nature of the work itself is grueling, and the new recruitment plan contains a more aggressive screening process. . . . Recruits will be shown a video that highlights the more difficult aspects of the job. The agency, which conducted a study that found successful caseworkers were able to make decisions when confronted with stressful situations, will incorporate those findings into the interview process[.]

Let's hope the New York City figures out how to do the job right and passes on its model to the rest of the country, although its continuing problems leave this issue open.

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