Supervising Child Protective Services Caseworkers
Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Children's Bureau., Caliber Associates. Salus, Marsha K.|
|Year Published: 2004|
Supervision is a multilayered process that involves a number of different roles and responsibilities. Clinical supervision focuses on the actions, responses, and decisions of the caseworker in providing services to clients. It does not mean or imply therapy. In this context, clinical is any direct interaction, intervention, or service between caseworkers and families. With that broad definition, all child protective services (CPS) caseworkers have a clinical impact on the children and families they serve.
The casework activities that clinical supervision focuses on include:
- The ability of the caseworker to engage the client;
- The rapport or the helping relationship between the caseworker and the client;
- Risk and safety assessments and the associated decisions and plans;
- Comprehensive child and family assessments;
- The development of a case plan with the family;
- Casework decision-making;
- Essential casework activities designed to facilitate change;
- The review and evaluation of client progress.45
Group supervision brings the unit together, and it is economical in terms of the supervisor's time. It can be used for case consultation, building self-awareness, and education. It is complementary to individual supervision. Supervisors should have training and experience in group processes so that they can effectively facilitate these sessions. It is important that supervisors do more than focus on the content of cases and issues raised by individual caseworkers. They must create a safe and accepting atmosphere so that caseworkers will meaningfully participate in the group processes.46 In addition, supervisors must create a structure for presentation and discussion of cases.
Individual meetings between the caseworker and supervisor are the most frequent context for supervision. It is essentially a dyadic process that requires structure, consistency, and a sense of safety for the caseworker in order to be successful. It should be a regularly scheduled meeting (e.g., 1 hour per week at 2:00 p.m. on Tuesdays) and conducted in a place that ensures privacy and protection from interruption. The key methods used to provide supervision and build self-awareness in the caseworker are review and evaluation, feedback, guidance and direction, and coaching, as described in Chapter 5, "Building Staff Capacity and Achieving Quality Performance," Chapter 6, "Supervisory Feedback and Performance Recognition" and Chapter 7, "Results-oriented Management."
Because of the crisis nature of CPS, there also may be unscheduled "off-the-cuff " sessions. There are disadvantages to relying too heavily on this unscheduled approach. First, because these types of meetings take time away from scheduled activities, they often are hurried and harried. Second, because they come up suddenly, there is no time for preparation. Third, decisions may be made without sufficient time to consider alternatives carefully. Fourth, if a supervisor uses this method as a primary means for supervision, the same cases tend to be discussed continuously while others tend to "fall through the cracks."47
There are a number of important reasons why focusing on self-awareness in supervision is important. Since the caseworker's personality and behavior are significant determinants of what happens in the caseworker-client interaction, the caseworker's feelings, attitudes, and behavior need to be examined. The supervisor assists staff in developing greater self-awareness so they can act in a deliberate, disciplined, and consciously directed manner to be optimally helpful to the client.48
Self-awareness also is essential because the social problems the caseworker encounters can affect him or her personally. The caseworker often is confronted with emotionally charged issues and circumstances that may not always be handled easily. The caseworker's values and beliefs may affect how he or she feels about, interacts with, or responds to clients. The caseworker may experience stress and resistance to clients who express hostility or seem unmotivated to change. Finally, the client's circumstance or behavior may strike a nerve in the caseworker because of unresolved issues or internal conflicts.49
|The Ladder of Inference|
An important tool in many organizations for increasing self-awareness is the "ladder of inference." Supervisors can use it to help caseworkers become aware of how they draw conclusions and to examine biases, beliefs, attitudes, and stereotypes. Individuals move up the ladder of inference in order to make sense of their experiences. It often is assumed that decisions are always based on objective data rather than acknowledging that everyone selectively examines data, adds their own meanings, and makes assumptions based on those meanings. All these steps up the ladder take place inside one's mind; they are enormously abstract. Therefore, the only step visible to others is the action of the person that stems from all of these internal processes.
The ladder of inference helps explain why most people do not usually remember where their deepest beliefs and attitudes came from. The data have been lost to memory after years of inferential leaps. The beliefs are based on conclusions, which are inferred from what a person observes plus past experience. This tool will assist in analyzing how these beliefs and attitudes may impact assessments and casework decisions.50
Supervisors should be concerned with building self-awareness in staff only as it relates to professional activities. Only as the caseworker's personal behavior, feelings, and attitudes create some difficulty in the performance of tasks do they become the focus of concern in supervision. When developing staff self-awareness, the focus must stay on the supervisee's work and professional growth rather than their worth and personal growth. The following are areas of focus for building self-awareness:
- Countertransference. Like all people, caseworkers have a history, issues that are not fully resolved, and unconscious desires or motivations. Traumatic experiences and other personal issues can be triggered through a countertransference of feelings spurred by interactions with certain clients. To help maintain objectivity and strengthen self-awareness, supervisors should educate staff regarding the dynamics of countertransference. Dealing with it requires reflection, discussion, and practice. The supervisory technique of coaching often is effective in dealing with countertransference issues. Supervisors should never become a therapist to the caseworker. They should, however, suggest counseling or employee assistance programs, if necessary.51 Supervisors also need to be aware of the impact of their own personal experiences and how it may affect their interactions with caseworkers they supervise.
- Personal qualities or characteristics. Sometimes a caseworker's personal qualities or characteristics get in the way of working effectively with clients. This requires honest self-appraisal. For example, a caseworker may be very direct and tell clients exactly what he or she thinks, often without diplomacy. After receiving several complaints about this style of interaction, supervisors need to help guide the caseworker into asking himself or herself "What am I doing that is creating these negative reactions?"
- Boundaries. Caseworkers must take full responsibility for establishing the limits of the relationship with their clients. Some caseworkers, however, establish unclear boundaries with clients. They may create dependency rather than promoting self-sufficiency. For example, a caseworker may jump in quickly and solve the client's problems or continually give advice rather than helping the client develop his or her own problem-solving abilities. Another example would be a caseworker who uses self-disclosure excessively, causing the focus of the work to shift from the client's problems to the caseworker's own situation.
- Diversity issues. If caseworkers do not understand their own culture as well as the cultural context in which their clients live, they will not work effectively with them.52 It is difficult to totally avoid communicating values to clients, even if caseworkers do not explicitly share them. A caseworker's tone and nonverbal behavior give clients indications of the caseworker's perspective or feelings. Supervisors need to assist caseworkers in assessing whether their values are interfering with their objectivity. Supervisors should help staff:
- Recognize their sources of discomfort with differences between them and their clients in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status, religion, gender, and sexual orientation; - Be conscious of how their own racial and cultural heritage affects their perception of assessment, planning, and intervention with clients; - Be mindful of stereotypes and preconceived notions that they may hold toward diverse client populations; - Understand how these factors influence the way they and the clients function in the world; - Be able to demonstrate respect for the needs of diverse populations in selecting intervention strategies that are appropriate for specific cultures.53
While many supervisors work with caseworkers on these issues related to clients, they may be neglectful of these issues within their own culturally diverse staffs. As society becomes more diverse, so does the workforce. A diverse workforce is an asset in meeting and addressing the needs of the multicultural population involved with CPS. In addition to being mindful of their own interactions with staff, supervisors also need to be cognizant of diversity issues between caseworkers. Many of the considerations listed above are equally applicable to staff interactions and may be a good starting point. For more on diversity issues and cultural competency, see Exhibit 8-1, Culturally Competent Practice, and refer to two other User Manual Series publications—Child Protective Services: A Guide for Caseworkers and A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: The Foundation for Practice.
Culturally Competent Practice
Caseworkers need to be aware of possible differences when assessing, investigating, or working with children and families from different cultures. Many abused and neglected children and their families fear or mistrust caseworkers and the social service system. An effective helping relationship will not be established unless the caseworker communicates respect for each person's potential. Respect also means using culturally competent practice, which entails:
Caseworkers should integrate cultural sensitivity into the risk assessment process by:
Translators may be needed to address the needs of a community adequately. Individuals who cannot communicate with caseworkers in their primary language may not be able to convey their needs or circumstances accurately. A child or family member may appear uncooperative, when, in reality, he or she does not fully understand what is being asked. Some issues to consider when hiring or using translators include:
The most common method for case consultation is a one-on-one conversation that usually involves the caseworker describing to the supervisor the major issues surrounding the case or situation. A major difficulty in discussing cases is the accuracy of the self-reporting. When a caseworker describes what is happening in a case and the data that led to his or her decision, the supervisor is receiving the information from the caseworker's "lens" or perspective. The data presented also may be limited by the caseworker's assessment skills, observational skills, and conceptual ability. As previously discussed, it is crucial for the supervisor to conduct direct observation of caseworker-client interaction, as well as with review documentation and case discussions, in order to gain an accurate picture of the case and the intervention approach.
The supervisor must have knowledge of every case on which the caseworker is working. It is essential to monitor the caseworker's decisions. Any decision that affects the safety or permanency to the child must be made in consultation with the supervisor. For more on risk, safety, and permanency assessment, please refer to the User Manual Series publication, Child Protective Services: A Guide for Caseworkers.
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