I wish I didn’t have to write this blog. It shouldn’t be necessary to advise you on tricks for getting a foster care caseworker to return phone calls, answer emails, or generally provide foster or adoptive parents information on a child in the system.
In an ideal world this advice wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately, we live in the real world of overburdened social workers with large caseloads, little administrative support, and bureaucratic politics. We also live in the real world where some caseworkers have burned out from years of fighting for kids and are now just putting in their time.
While I think it’s important to understand that social workers in foster care state and county child welfare agencies face real obstacles, that doesn’t really help the foster and adoptive parents who are trying to get information on a child or trying to advocate for a child in their care.
As hard as it is and as much as you may not believe it, work off the premise that the caseworker is overworked, not just indifferent.
How to Be a Polite Pain in the Butt
You have the right to get information you need to make a decision about fostering or adopting a child. You have the right to advocate for the child and for yourself. Not only do you have the right, the kids are depending on you. You must be proactive, but you don’t have to be a jerk.
- When leaving phone messages, don`t leave the ball in the caseworkers court to call you back. End the message saying you will keep trying to reach them.
- If you need for them to call you back or reply to an email, make it easier for them by leaving your phone number and case number. Yes, they could look it up in the files, but the more hassle it is to call, the more likely it will be postponed.
- If you are already working with a caseworker about a specific child, try to set up a regularly scheduled weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly phone call or meeting. Send an email confirmation or leave a voice mail the day before your scheduled call or meeting.
- If you are trying to stay on the social worker`s radar screen for a future child, look for reasons to periodically connect. For example, “Just listened to a great Creating a Family show on Parenting Easily Frustrated Inflexible Kids with Challenging Behavior and thought you might like to listen to it on your drive,” or “Just finished The Connected Child. Wow, what a good book.”
- Keep an ongoing list of specific questions you want to talk about when you do reach the social worker so you do not waste time when talking with her. Prioritize your list so that you hit the most important topics first in case your time is cut short.
- If you’ve been trying to reach the social worker for some time and have left a number of messages, when you finally reach him, consider starting the conversation with some version of “I know you are really busy and I don`t want to be too pushy, but ….” (This option is not appropriate when they were supposed to have contacted you with information.)
- If the social worker has not returned calls or emails, when you finally connect with him, resist the temptation to point out these failings. You need to maintain a working relationship and offering him a face-saving way out will make it easier to work together. Either don’t mention the unanswered calls and emails, or just say that you’re glad that you’ve finally been able to connect (without too much emphasis on the word “finally”).
- End all conversations with a question of when you should expect to hear back or when you should call back. This forces the caseworker to make a commitment of timing to you, which may help spur them on, but even if not, it gives you permission to bug them after that point in time.
- At the end of each phone call or meeting summarize what you have agreed to do and what she have agreed to do
- Keep notes on all phone conversations and meetings and make sure to include the date. If you think it would be helpful, send a summary of the call via email to the social worker with a short friendly note saying you know how busy she is, so you thought you`d help out by sending her this summary. Thank her for her help.
Should You Go to the Supervisor?
Going over someone’s head is akin to the nuclear option. It almost always turns your relationship adversarial, so should be avoided if possible. Sometimes though it can’t be avoided. If you have not been able to reach the assigned caseworker after many tries, you may have to go up the ladder.
Keep in mind that the supervisor will likely take the caseworker’s side, so you need to give her “plausible deniability” to keep her from becoming defensive. For example if the caseworker (Suzy) hasn’t responded for 2 or 3 calls or emails, you could call the supervisor and say:
Sorry to bother you, but I guess the Suzy is on vacation (or reassigned) and I was looking for who is handling her caseload while she’s gone. We have been trying to get info on this child for 2 months and I would really appreciate any help you could give us.
Suzy said she be back with me two weeks ago. Since I haven’t heard from her or been able to reach her, I assume the case has been removed from her caseload. I was hoping you might be able to help connect us with the new caseworker because we really need this information.
What has worked for you in getting a foster care caseworker to return phone calls or emails?
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