It shouldn’t be necessary to teach you how to get your caseworker’s attention. However, we know that sometimes communication can be a huge issue when working in the foster system. It’s frustrating for foster parents and kinship caregivers, but it’s also understandable. Foster workers are overworked. Caseloads are too heavy. Administrative support is often lacking. Bureaucracy repeatedly shouts louder than the parents and kids for whom these caseworkers advocate. The tyranny of the urgent takes over routine and regularity.
In an ideal world, none of the tricks we will share here would be necessary. However, the real world is that overburdened social workers face significant obstacles. Sometimes the lack of communication signals their burnout from years of fighting for kids and resource parents. The system itself is overloaded. Birth families and foster families alike depend upon caseworkers to help them carry heavy weights while securing the best interests of the kids in their care.
It’s essential to keep in mind the weights and burdens of social workers in the state and county welfare agencies. But we know that doesn’t help when foster, kinship, or adoptive parents are trying to get information on a child or advocate for the child in their care.
Be a Polite Pain in the Neck
As hard as it is to consider or maybe believe, try to assume that your family’s social worker is overworked, not indifferent. Assuming the best at the outset will help you approach these tips for getting your caseworker’s attention.
You have the right to get the information you need to decide about fostering or adopting a child. It’s imperative that you have the right tools to advocate for the child in your home. You and your family deserve to get what you need to succeed. You don’t just have that right. It’s imperative because the children depend on you.
You need to be proactive to ensure you have what you need, but you don’t have to be a jerk about it. Instead, we suggest that you be a polite pain in the neck. Think, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” You can find ways to speak up and get what you and your family need to thrive in this foster or kinship placement.
How to Be the Squeaky Wheel – Politely!
- Don’t leave the ball in the caseworker’s court to call you back when you leave a phone message. End the message by saying that you will try again to reach them. Follow up a couple of days later if you don’t hear from them
- Say so explicitly if you need your caseworker to call you back or reply to an email. Make it as easy as possible for them by leaving your phone number and case number. Indeed, they could look it up in the files. But the more steps they must take to get back to you, the more likely they will “get to it later.”
- Try to set up regularly scheduled check-ins with your caseworker if you already have a child in your home. Schedule emails to confirm the meeting or leave a voicemail the day before the meeting to remind the social worker. It doesn’t have to be a weekly meeting. Any sort of regularity in contact will decrease the risk that you and your case will fall through the cracks of the worker’s busy calendar.
- When you are waiting for a specific child or eligibility for placement, try to stay on the social worker’s radar. Look for reasons to connect with them periodically. For example, send an email. “Just listened to a great CreatingaFamily.org podcast, Parenting Kids with Prenatal Exposure, and it really connected with us.” Or “Thanks for recommending that we read The Connected Child.* Wow, what a good book.”
- Maintain a running list of specific questions you want to talk about when you do connect with the social worker. You do not waste your time or theirs. Prioritize your list to hit the most important topics first in case your time is cut short.
- Once you connect, start the conversation by acknowledging that they are busy and you don’t want to be too pushy. (This option is not appropriate when the social worker was supposed to have contacted you with time-sensitive information or resources.) Emphasize that you have issues to discuss that are important to you and your family.
- If the social worker has not returned your calls or emails, resist the temptation to point out those failings when you finally connect. You can choose not to mention the unanswered calls and emails. You can also briefly mention that you’re glad that you’ve finally been able to connect (without emphasizing the word “finally”).
- Remember that you need to maintain a working relationship. Assuming their best intentions and offering a face-saving “out” can make it easier to work together.
- End your conversations by asking when you can expect to hear back from the caseworker. You can nicely require them to commit to a timeframe. It may help spur them on and gives you tacit permission to be the squeaky wheel after that timeframe. You could also ask when you can call back to wrap up the issue.
- At the end of each email exchange, phone call, or meeting, offer a summary of what you have both agreed to do. Restate the timeframes for follow-up or next contact.
- Take notes on all your points of contact with the caseworker. Make sure you track dates and participants if others are involved in the conversations. If you think it would be helpful, send a summary of the phone call or meeting with a short friendly note. You can say something like, “I know how busy you are, so I thought I’d help us both out with a summary of our meeting. Thanks for your time yesterday.”
What’s It Like to be in Foster Care? Hear it right from former foster youth!
When Should You Go to the Supervisor?
Sometimes, even your best assumptions and efforts to establish helpful communication with your caseworker are fruitless. It’s frustrating to have a need, express it clearly and still feel unheard. We get it. However, remember that going over your worker’s head is akin to the nuclear option. It will almost always turn your relationship with this caseworker adversarial, so you should try to avoid it if possible. When you have no other options and have not been able to reach your assigned caseworker after many tries, you may have to go up the ladder.
How to Escalate the Issue to a Supervisor
There are a couple of things to keep in mind if you must exercise the option to contact a supervisor.
1. Again, assume the best.
Escalating the issue to a supervisor is another situation when it is helpful to assume positive intent. You will aid your cause and the relationship among you, if you lead with understanding and grace. The supervisor is also overworked, overburdened, and working within the framework of a flawed system. Start the conversation by offering the same assumption of good intent that you give your caseworker.
2. Give them both a safe “out.”
Try to remember that the supervisor will likely take the caseworker’s side. It will help to give the supervisor “plausible deniability” so they don’t jump to defensiveness right off the bat.
For example, if your caseworker (we’ll call her Jane) hasn’t responded to 2 or 3 calls or emails, you can contact the supervisor:
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I wonder if Jane is on vacation? Or maybe she’s been reassigned? I’m trying to find who handles her caseload while she’s gone. We have been trying to get info about my foster child’s case for two months. I would appreciate any help you could give us.”
“Jane mentioned several weeks ago that she’d have some answers for me about Johnny. I haven’t heard from her yet. Does this mean that her caseload has changed? If so, can you help me connect with the new caseworker? We really need this information.”
Keep Your Why – And Theirs – in Front of Mind
It’s frustrating to be committed to the child’s safety and healing but to also feel unheard or ignored. We get it. However, try to keep “the best interest of the child” in focus as your “why” to help you hang in there when you are frustrated with the social worker. It’s also helpful to remember that this caseworker most likely joined the social services and child welfare ranks with a heart to work for many children’s best interests.
If you haven’t already, consider asking your caseworker why they pursued the foster system for their life’s work. Take time to hear them out and connect with their “why” to help you see them as your ally and your child’s advocate. Look for ways to see them as being on your side, rather than an adversary or obstacle you must navigate to get needs met. You are likely more similar in your “why” than you are different. The common intentions can help both of you see the child and his needs more clearly.
Tell us in the comments: What works for you in getting your caseworker’s attention?
Image Credits: paz.ca; Ivan Radic; Dafne Cholet
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