Municipalities Struggle To Adequately Train Social Workers In light of the Danieal Kelly case, Tammy Linseisen, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin, and Debra Schilling Wolfe, of the Field Center for Children's Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, talk about training and supporting social workers, and other staff charged with keeping vulnerable children safe from harm.
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Municipalities Struggle To Adequately Train Social Workers

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Municipalities Struggle To Adequately Train Social Workers

Municipalities Struggle To Adequately Train Social Workers

Municipalities Struggle To Adequately Train Social Workers

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In light of the Danieal Kelly case, Tammy Linseisen, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin, and Debra Schilling Wolfe, of the Field Center for Children's Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, talk about training and supporting social workers, and other staff charged with keeping vulnerable children safe from harm.

: And now we're going to take a moment to try and see just how a case like Danieal Kelly's can happen. Joining us are two social workers, Tammy Linseisen, a clinical associate professor at the University of Texas in Austin, and Debra Schilling Wolfe, the executive director of the Fields Center for Children's Policy Practice and Research, and she's at the University of Pennsylvania. Welcome to both of you.

TAMMY LINSEISEN: Thank you, nice to be here.

DEBRA SCHILLING WOLFE: Thank you for having me.

: Let's start with you, Ms. Wolfe. We've been talking about this case of Danieal Kelly, and every now and then, one of these cases seems to just sort of punch through the media and we're all shocked when we see these terrible stories. But they do happen from time to time. They do keep happening in some way. Why? Is there any answer to that question?

SCHILLING WOLFE: Well, cases like this show us where there are failures in child welfare systems. It doesn't happen just in Philadelphia, it happens across the country. And although hundreds of thousands of kids are well protected and well cared for, one child's death due to systemic failure certainly is going to bring the public's attention to an issue like this.

: You have written about this. You're in Philadelphia, and you have written about this story. It seems there needs to be a sort of fundamental change going on in the Department of Human Services. What specifically needs to change?

SCHILLING WOLFE: Well, at the Field Center we really look at this as a systemic breakdown. These cases are classic example of what is wrong in the Department of Human Services. There certainly are efforts and a desire to improve that, and it has to be improved at multiple levels.

For example, in this particular case, kids were not seen. Supervisors were unaware. It didn't adequately monitor the children weren't seen. That's something that's completely unacceptable. There need to be policies and procedures in place that are followed. You can have the best policies and procedures in the world, but if they are not implemented and monitored, they're not as good as the paper that they're printed on.

: And let's turn to you, now, Tammy Linseisen. First of all, have you ever seen a case like this? Have you ever been involved in one? Do you have any insight that you might add, to begin with?

LINSEISEN: Well, I really agree with Dr. Schilling Wolfe that the system clearly broke down. And you know, the cases that make the media are these, the ones where there is a huge systemic breakdown, and unfortunately, that's when much of the change tends to happen in agencies, unfortunately, after something serious like this has happened.

: You know what was really, I guess, really very shocking when you read these stories, was - well, certainly what seemed to be indifference on the part of the social worker in this case. We just heard the reporter say that apparently he had files that he just was ignoring for years, and that's his failure but then there's a failure of oversight, as well. Is there not - I mean, why is this at all part of the system? It just seems like it shouldn't be there at all.

LINSEISEN: Well, I want to make a pretty significant distinction that I can find no evidence in any of the records that I have reviewed that these people are actually social workers. Social workers are educated and trained professionals who come through accredited social work schools. It is not uncommon to interchange the wording of caseworker and social worker, but there's a very distinct difference. If, in fact, a social worker had committed these injustices, they would be in direct violation of our code of ethics.

: All right. You'll going to have to explain that a little bit more. What do you mean, there's a difference between - I think people do associate or assume that caseworkers and the people who supervise them are also social workers. So what is the difference exactly?

LINSEISEN: Well, in the state of Texas, I can tell you that the last numbers I read indicated that about 24 percent of the child welfare workforce was actually social work trained. That means that they have completed a Bachelors in social work program and been licensed by the State of Texas, or completed a Masters in social work program and been licensed by the State of Texas. In the State of Texas, our code of conduct does not allow us to even call ourselves social workers if we are not licensed.

: So are you saying that in this case and maybe in some of the others that if there was a greater degree of professionalism, this might not have happened?

LINSEISEN: Well, I can't speak specifically to these individuals, but I can certainly say that there was a lack of professionalism in this case.

: Right. What is your take on that, Debra Wolfe?

SCHILLING WOLFE: I do agree with my colleague that there is a distinction between a professionally trained social worker and one who is not, and very often, in this case in particular, we've been reading over and over again that the caseworkers have been called social workers. And to be a social worker, you do need to have a professional degree.

The important thing, I think, is for folks coming into this kind of work to have the appropriate background and training to go into it, but as they are in it also to receive ongoing training and appropriate supervision from people who are professionally trained to do so.

: Well, even apart from the caseworker - I'm happy to call them caseworkers - but you also have supervisors, people who did not really supervise these people correctly to make sure they were doing what they need to do. And one of the people involved was working for a contractor to the city, so that raises questions about what contractors do. So again, Ms. Wolfe, it returns to the whole idea of this system needing some shaking up, it sounds like.

SCHILLING WOLFE: Absolutely. Services frequently are privatized and contracted out, and that's not an inappropriate thing to do. The child welfare agency's role should be focused exclusively on child protection, on investigating and monitoring safety of children. And if they do that and focus on doing that well, then that will help to keep children safe.

Contracted agencies provide necessary treatment services to help remedy whatever issues arose to place those children at risk, but it's critically important for the actions of those agencies and the services they provided to be appropriately monitored, and in this case, that clearly did not happen.

: Here's what I wonder sometimes when I read these terrible stories, and both of you can respond to this. I wonder if some of these people are seeing so many terrible things that they just - they can't - there's some kind of, I guess - I hate to use that phrase, but that compassion fatigue sets in? They simply don't respond to a terrible situation like this because they're seeing a lot of it, and how do you deal with that terrible human frailty, if you want to call it that, that terrible reaction that somebody would be so impervious to such suffering? How does that happen and how do you affect that through training? Can you?

LINSEISEN: Well, I think we do see this kind of issue come up of compassion fatigue, particularly if workers are not supported in the environment within which they work. It seems that these people - many of these in this particular case - where operating on islands. It's a mystery to me how supervisors were not involved in checking on what was going on with these cases.

In the State of Texas, we certainly have a system that has problems, as well as many of them do. But there are tickler systems and databases that won't allow for cases to not be assigned for two years - at least, that's in one report that I read. So the lack of supervision, I believe, really promotes compassion fatigue. There needs to be a level of mental health that the workers have and are able to promote, and there needs to be a limit on the number of cases and the amount of acuity that they're dealing with on a daily basis.

: Debra Wolfe, did you want to add to that?

SCHILLING WOLFE: Yeah. I certainly agree with everything my colleague stated. And in this particular case, caseload sizes were not extraordinary, so that's certainly...

LINSEISEN: I saw that.

SCHILLING WOLFE: Yes. So that certainly is one of the reasons nationally why workers become overwhelmed and stressed, so you really need to look at other issues. And in this case, the supervisory system was not meeting the needs of workers, and in terms of compassion fatigue or secondary trauma, we frequently see that in these cases but that is very well dealt within a system that provides good close supervision, where cases are closely monitored. Workers are provided supervision in terms of both the casework they're doing and their coping with cases because this is extremely stressful work and if they're not provided adequate supervision, they're not going to be able to protect children.

: All right. Debra Schilling Wolfe is the executive director of the Field Center for Children's Policy Practice and Research. She joined us from the University of Pennsylvania where she is a professor. And Tammy Linseisen is a clinical associate professor at the University of Texas School of Social Work, and she joined us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Thanks for being with us.

SCHILLING WOLFE: Thank you.

LINSEISEN: Thank you.

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