Supervising Child Protective Services Caseworkers
Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Children's Bureau., Caliber Associates. Salus, Marsha K.|
|Year Published: 2004|
The Nature of Child Protective Services Supervision
The primary function of child protective services (CPS) supervisors is to achieve the outcomes of safety, permanency, and well-being for the children and families they serve and to enable casework staff to fulfill the mission of the agency. CPS supervisors are the primary conduit of information between the frontline caseworkers and the child welfare administration. Supervisors work to inform caseworkers of the goals, plans, and concerns of administrators while also informing administrators of the caseworkers' challenges, workloads, and ideas. This flow of communication helps agencies to plan or adjust policies and practices, as well as to better allocate resources.
There are three overarching roles for CPS supervisors—building the foundation for and maintaining unit effectiveness, promoting the development of individual staff capacity, maintaining excellence in staff performance, and developing an effective relationship with upper management.
Building and Maintaining the Foundation for Unit Functioning
CPS supervisors create the structure that ensures the essential functions of the unit are accomplished and lead to the achievement of unit goals. They also make sure that all relevant laws and policies are followed and maintain the standards of performance for the unit. Through their actions, supervisors directly influence the nature of unit and individual staff performance. How quickly supervisors intervene to deal with problems and the pace at which they pursue solutions are important clues about their concern for and ability to achieve results. Most supervisors say they want results, but not all know how to attain them. Supervisors with an ability to track achievement of outcomes and performance indicators, as well as to use data to emphasize results, are more likely to realize excellence in unit performance.
In large measure, supervisors set the tone for their unit, and they need to take the necessary actions to establish a positive work climate. The ultimate goal of every supervisor is to develop a work group that is motivated to achieve the mission and goals of the agency, as well as satisfying the caseworker's own personal needs and goals. For this to happen, the supervisor needs to take an active role in promoting a cohesive work team. When a unit is cohesive:
- Children are better protected;
- Excellence in performance is evident;
- Staff have positive and supportive relationships with their peers;
- Morale is high and turnover is low.
Developing and Maintaining Individual Staff Capacity
Regardless of whether supervisors are involved in the recruitment and hiring of new staff or not, agencies must hire for the long-term. They must recruit and screen prospective employees based on how an individual matches the agency's values and philosophies, rather than simply trying to fill a position as soon as possible.
Orientation of new staff is often the responsibility of supervisors. The primary purpose of orientation is to help new caseworkers fit into their jobs, work groups, the organization, and even the community. Therefore, orientation provides information about the employee's role in the agency and the agency's role in the community. Effective orientation helps to reduce the anxiety that new staff often experience, creates a sense of belonging to the unit and agency, and promotes the development of staff competence.
Historically, supervisors have been the primary resource for developing the knowledge and skills of caseworkers. Many States have now recognized that supervisors do not have sufficient time, training, or resources to develop adequately or consistently the basic competencies staff must possess for effective practice. Consequently, some have developed extensive training programs for newly hired staff. In these agencies, the role of supervisors has shifted more toward coaching and aiding the new staff member. Training effectiveness relies on the role of supervisors in ensuring that caseworkers apply the knowledge and skills learned in training to their job.
In other States, however, preservice training is not sufficient to prepare caseworkers for the job or the training occurs months after hiring. In these situations, supervisors have primary responsibility for developing caseworkers' core skills. As caseworkers develop the expertise to perform the required CPS tasks and activities, supervisors lessen the amount of direction and guidance and provide increasing autonomy.
The amount of autonomy supervisors delegate to caseworkers depends on the demonstrated skill level of each caseworker and on their judgment, problem-solving, and decision-making abilities. Less-experienced caseworkers require greater guidance, help with decisions, and more detail in case assignments. It is the role of supervisors, however, to develop the capacity for greater autonomy. If dependence on a supervisor persists, it may reflect the need to communicate more confidence in a caseworker's abilities. Given the critical nature of CPS decisions, many case actions and decisions are made in consultation between a supervisor and a caseworker. Any decision that impacts on the safety or permanency of children should be made with a supervisor. For experienced caseworkers, this consultation should emphasize review, feedback, and coaching as needed, rather than direct decision-making by supervisors.
Developing an Effective Relationship with Upper Management
Because of the top-down emphasis in organizations, sometimes it is not apparent why supervisors need to manage relationships upward. Good supervisors, however, recognize that relationships with managers involve mutual dependence and, if not managed well, supervisors cannot be effective in their jobs. Most effective supervisors see managing their relationship with their own manager as an essential part of their job. They take the time and energy to develop a relationship that is consistent with both persons' styles and assets, as well as meets the most critical needs of each.1 This topic is discussed in greater depth in Chapter 10, "Managing from the Middle."
The Components of Supervisory Effectiveness
Research suggests that there are multiple core components of supervisory and management effectiveness. They include:
- Communication—Ensuring that expectations are clear. It requires that information needed by staff be provided and shared to help them feel secure as a members of a unit.
- Control—Systematically monitoring progress toward completion of assigned tasks and attainment of goals. Supervisors need to institute systems, such as notebooks or computer programs, to track data on a consistent basis. (For more information on this, see Chapter 7, "Results-oriented Management," of this manual.)
- Feedback—Letting staff know how well their performance matches expectations. It includes the use of both positive and negative feedback, as well as providing feedback on performance evaluation and career development.
- Supervisory focus—Achieving comfort with the four core aspects of the role of supervision: mutual dependence (i.e., accomplishing goals through others); power and influence (i.e., mentoring or guiding caseworkers through casework practice); comfort with the "glass bubble" (i.e., the visibility of the role); and comfort with conflict (i.e., accepting there will be differences of opinion with caseworkers on case management decisions).
- Production—Setting and maintaining high standards of performance and personally demonstrating a sense of urgency about results. For example, adhering to statutory and agency timelines for conducting investigations and delivering services. It also reflects the concern for excellence as modeled by the supervisor's own approach to work.
- Interpersonal skills—Demonstrating an ability to interact positively with and a concern for coworkers.2
These six components of supervisory effectiveness are independent, so placing a high emphasis on one component does not necessarily mean that a low emphasis is placed on another component. For example, a high degree of emphasis on production does not necessarily imply a low emphasis on people. High production can result, however, in unintended consequences. For instance, effective practice can lead to a heavier caseload that may negatively impact a caseworker's ability to provide timely services. Because these are measures of behavioral emphasis, the behaviors may be changed to improve supervisory performance. They are not fixed by the nature of either the supervisor or caseworker's personality, only by habit and reactions to situational cues.
This framework offers a powerful diagnostic and action tool for supervisors. In many agencies, poor unit or individual performance can be linked to low or ineffective supervisory emphasis on one or more of the core components. For example, a caseworker may not collect enough information from a family member to assess risk and determine safety. The supervisor may not have expressed clearly what information was needed (communication), followed up to ensure that the proper information was being collected (control), provided feedback in the past to sustain or correct previous assessment practices (feedback), or emphasized the importance of the information (production). Essentially, supervisory practices in each of the six areas will determine and influence the nature of the work accomplished by casework staff.
In the same way that every person tends to rely on one arm that eventually becomes stronger than the other, supervisors tend to rely on certain practices. Practice strength in some areas, however, does not compensate for weaknesses in other areas. For example, clear expectations do not make up for lack of warmth or feedback. Furthermore, frequent positive feedback given warmly does not negate the insecurity felt when expectations are left unclear. Supervisors with clear expectations and criteria for performance generally find greater acceptance of feedback than those with unclear expectations. It is rare to find supervisors who are effective in all six areas, though such performance is achievable with honest self-assessment and a commitment to professional growth.
Supportive Supervisory Practices
There are a number of supervisory practices that assist in building and maintaining staff capacity, creating the foundation for unit performance, and establishing positive relationships with upper management. These practices include:
- Monitoring outcomes
- Giving feedback
- Supporting the emotional needs of staff
- Influencing others
- Analyzing problems
- Making decisions
- Managing conflict or mediating.
Once case factors are assessed and decisions made, an important function of supervision is the initiation of or support for action. This initiation begins with delegation of responsibility. Of course, supervisors then have other responsibilities and roles to play in supporting cases, including communicating expectations and information, providing structure in task organization, and coaching to help caseworkers determine what must be done in particular cases. Direct supervision requires a certain amount of personal involvement or a "hands-on" approach. It is important to remember, however, that the primary role of supervisors is to influence the work of others, not to do the job directly. Supervisors with a high need for control may find it difficult to delegate authority or form partnerships with caseworkers. Such practices tend to limit staff growth, reinforce dependency, and may create a resistance to effective practice.
The major forms of delegation in CPS supervision are assigning cases and delineating the roles of the caseworker and the supervisor on each case. When communicating expectations in a particular case, supervisors must ensure that the staff are clear regarding:
- Reason or purpose for the task—Communicate why the task must be completed.
- Outcome—Specify what needs to be accomplished and what the caseworker must do to achieve that.
- Timeframe—Delineate when the task must be started and when it should be completed.
- What is necessary for completion—Describe how the task should be completed or the specific steps or activities the caseworker must complete.
- Responsibility—Identify who should be involved in the completion of the task, who should take the lead, and who should be consulted and at what point.
- Benefits of the performance—Outline the benefits to the child, the family, the caseworker, and the agency.3
Other information may be necessary for the caseworker to respond to the needs of the family. Often, supervisors have information about the history of the family that may not be documented in the case record or in the report to CPS. This information should be given along with the case assignment.
A critical supervisory practice is monitoring the achievement of outcomes in individual cases as measured by the individual caseworker and by the unit as a whole. Monitoring enables supervisors to intervene to redirect practice when current methods and procedures are not achieving the overall results the agency seeks. It also allows supervisors to recognize and encourage successful performance, identify trends for which they need to plan, and spot problems in which they need to intervene. (See Chapter 7, "Results-oriented Management," for additional information.)
When supervisors provide feedback to their staff, they are communicating the idea that performance matters. An absence of feedback suggests the opposite. Effective feedback generally enhances staff security because they know how they are doing, what needs to be changed, and the extent to which their efforts and results are appreciated. Feedback promotes staff development by providing information about work efforts, patterns, and effectiveness. In addition, feedback is important to feelings of self-worth and contributes to communication and trust in the unit. Finally, feedback is one of the most effective tools supervisors can use for maintaining good performance and improving marginal or unsatisfactory performance. (See Chapter 6, "Supervisory Feedback and Performance Recognition," for additional information.)
Supporting the Emotional Needs of Staff
Another critical role of supervision involves recognizing and responding to the needs and concerns of staff. Recognizing the needs of staff and providing emotional support involves empathy more than identification. People want to know that their needs are heard and understood. Excellence in performance and staff retention is more likely to occur when staff experience support, care, and concern from their supervisor.
Although feelings are a legitimate part of business in any organization, the emotional nature of CPS work makes the expression and acceptance of feelings even more important. Supervisors must balance concern for staff with an emphasis on results. This element of supervisory responsibility can be challenging. Staff may identify many needs that cannot be met or that must be balanced with other needs and limited resources. For instance, there may not be agency funds available to provide individualized therapy or additional support after a child fatality or other emotionally charged event. A group debriefing or special staff meeting focused on providing emotional support is a low-cost alternative the supervisor may wish to pursue.
Supervisors can facilitate individual accomplishments related to performance expectations and encourage unit achievement of CPS goals. As mid-level managers, supervisors are also an influential link to upper management, other units in the agency, and the community. The degree to which supervisors are able to influence others affects the availability of agency and community resources for the unit. In order to meet the agency's goals and provide effective services, it is critical that supervisors have the ability to persuade, cooperate with, and support all parties involved.
By design, supervisors are positioned a step back from the frontline. This perspective permits a broader, more objective view of issues affecting practice. Much of supervisors' time is spent dealing with aspects of caseworkers' interventions with families. For many supervisors, this means assisting the caseworker in assessing the families' needs and formulating case plans. Of equal importance is the interaction of the caseworker with individual clients. Analysis of problems and needs in intervention must include the dynamics of the caseworker's actions with each family member. Like caseworkers, supervisors are the trustee of the agency's mission to help children and families. Therefore, when caseworker-family conflict occurs, supervisors must consider the needs of all concerned—the child, the parents, the family, and the caseworker.
In addition to case specific issues, problems can occur that affect the functioning of the CPS unit or achievement of unit goals. For example, lack of resources, changes in policy or practice, or unrealistic expectations must be addressed to ensure successful performance of the unit.
Supervisors determine who will have input into decisions and the balance between unilateral action and group consensus. A balance must be struck between the needs for staff to view supervisors as decisive leaders who are willing and able to make decisions and their need for inclusion and participation. Individual staff vary on these needs. Some may criticize supervisors for not making more decisions, others for making too many. In any group, it is difficult to accommodate all levels of need. Even so, it is important to respond in a way that addresses each individual's underlying security and autonomy needs. Staff involvement in decision-making results in empowerment. Supervisors must remember that the more that staff are involved in the decisions that affect them, the more committed and motivated they will be toward achieving those goals.
Mediating and Negotiating
A critical role of supervisors involves mediating and negotiating between the conflicting needs and goals of agency divisions and units. Conflict is inherent in any activity involving two or more individuals. Within an agency, staff may use different methods, have different objectives, or perceive situations differently. Mediating such differences and building commitment to common goals and outcomes are essential to teamwork.
In mediation, the foremost role of the supervision is to acknowledge and accommodate the needs of line staff and those of upper administration. As mid-level managers, supervisors may be uncomfortable with conflict or require strong identification with one group or the other for their personal security. In such instances, supervisors are less likely to experience satisfaction and success in the supervisory role. Supervisors must feel comfortable representing the needs of both groups.
Other mediation roles also are important for successful supervision. One role is mediating between the units and programs of the agency. For example, there is sometimes friction between foster care and permanency planning units regarding family reunification and other alternatives. Supervisors typically become involved in mediating the decision-making of such cases. In addition, they are usually the negotiators of internal agency policies and procedures. The second role is mediating conflicts between staff members. Interpersonal conflicts in the unit often require the direct intervention of a supervisor. A third role is mediating between staff and the clients or community service providers.
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