Child Protective Services Caseworker

child's hands with the word help in them
John Rensten/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Every day all over the world, children are abused and neglected. Every time this happens, it is tragic, but thankfully, there are men and women who devote their careers to child protection. Those on the front line are child protective services caseworkers. They investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect and work with families to mitigate the likelihood abused and neglected children will be victimized again.

This is noble work, but people tend to burn out on it quickly. The pay is relatively low, and the job is difficult. Those who stay beyond a year or two often make a career of it because they find healthy ways to deal with the aggravations and disappointments inherent in protective services.

The Selection Process

In the US, state law dictates how child protective services agencies are set up. There are two primary methods for this. One way is for the state government to operate one statewide program. The other is for the state to delegate the responsibility for child protection to counties, while the state government maintains an oversight role. In either scheme, the hiring process is similar. The biggest difference is whether child protective services staff work for the state or for a county.

Child welfare agencies generally follow the normal government hiring process with some additional steps.

Many agencies administer personality tests to applicants for the purpose of hiring a workforce that will stay. Child protective services positions tend to have very high turnover. Agencies also run background checks against their own systems to ensure people they intend to hire have not been found to have abused or neglected a child.

This is in addition to criminal background checks.

Caseworkers are hired and supervised by child protective services supervisors. In larger jurisdictions, supervisors may have diminished roles in the hiring process. Given the high turnover in protective services, hiring managers would spend an inordinate amount of time hiring such that they could not effectively perform other management tasks like consulting on cases, developing staff and balancing workloads. Supervisors often have vacant positions in their units. Many jurisdictions have caseworker job postings advertised all the time.

The Education and Experience You'll Need

Most child protective agencies require newly hired child protective services caseworkers to hold a bachelor’s degree. Preferred fields of study include social work, psychology, sociology, counseling and criminal justice. Applicants with other degrees may be hired, but obviously, candidates with preferred degrees have an advantage over those who do not.

Many child protective services caseworkers are hired right out of college. Students planning on a career in child welfare usually complete internships as part of ​a bachelor of social work degree plans. People also come to child welfare careers later in life.

Those with experience in law enforcement like police officers and detectives come to child welfare to get away from dealing with criminals while still exercising their investigative skills.

No matter how many years of relevant education and experience, employers provide extensive training to new caseworkers. New hires gain subject matter knowledge in areas like child development and family dynamics. They also acquire skills in interviewing, evidence collection, evidence analysis, and service provision. Training programs often include job shadowing and mentoring components. New hires also learn to navigate case management systems where caseworkers document their case-related actions.

What You'll Do

Child protective services caseworkers investigate allegations of abuse and neglect committed against children by those legally responsible to care for them.

Once a caseworker knows what happened regarding the alleged abuse or neglect in a particular case, the caseworker can then offer services to the family to remedy the current situation and prevent further maltreatment. Child protective services caseworkers need investigative skills and social work skills to be successful in their jobs.

While each case is different, caseworkers perform some tasks on just about every investigation. The first thing caseworkers do is review the information reported on an allegation of abuse and neglect. This information is just one side of a story that could have a multitude of facets. Caseworkers use this information to develop an initial plan for investigating the allegation. The plan may change over the course of the investigation, but a caseworker has to start somewhere.

Caseworkers talk to many people over the course of an investigation. One case could include interviews with any or all of the following: children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, educators, clergy, medical personnel and psychologists. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it does cover the most common people who may have knowledge about an alleged incident of abuse or neglect. In addition to collecting testimonial evidence, caseworkers also collect documentary evidence like medical reports, arrest records, court documents, and bank records.

After determining whether abuse or neglect occurred, caseworkers plan and coordinate services to help a family’s situation. While caseworkers sometimes must remove children from their homes, they prefer not to do this. Instead, they pursue all other options to keep families together and on the path toward an end to child protective services involvement in their lives.

One thing caseworkers quickly learn is to monitor their surroundings. While child abuse and neglect happens in families of all income tax brackets, caseworkers often travel through rough neighborhoods and go into homes that may have unsafely stored firearms, drug activity, gang activity and aggressive animals. Caseworkers’ best weapon against personal harm is intuition. They know when the hairs on the back of their necks stand up, it is time to make a calm and quick exit.

Caseworkers are asked to testify in court proceedings. When child protective services cases result in criminal court or family court cases, caseworkers are called to testify about their involvement with the families. They are posed with questions about the facts of the cases and are asked to give their expert opinions about how a judge should decide in a particular case.

People often get burned out on child protective services work because they go into it thinking they are going to change the world. After a few years of seeing the same families come back into the child welfare system and seeing new families with the same problems, caseworkers can feel they are not making a difference. What sustains caseworkers when they get dejected is while they may not change the world, they change the worlds of the families they serve. Caseworkers must take heart in the small victories because the big ones can be few and far between.

What You'll Earn

People do not go into this line of work for the money. A few jurisdictions pay high starting salaries, but most start new caseworkers at salaries between $30,000 and $35,000. Child protective services agencies often have career ladder programs that provide periodic salary increases. To make more than $45,000 or so, caseworkers must promote into supervisory or highly specialized roles.

Find Your Next Job

Job Search by