Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Children with Disabilities in the Child Welfare System

Competencies for Child Welfare Caseworkers Serving Children with Disabilities


Judith S. Rycus is Program Director with the Institute for Human Services, Columbus, Ohio.

Children who have developmental disabilities, emotional disturbance, mental illness, or severe behavior problems are increasingly being served by child welfare agencies. Most of these children who enter the child welfare system do so as victims of abuse or neglect, while others need temporary or permanent out-of-home placement because their parents cannot care for them. As a group, they are generally described in the child welfare literature as having “special needs.” They can present significant challenges to their families, caregivers, and service providers, and if their special needs and conditions are not appropriately addressed and treated in a timely manner, these conditions often become more pronounced over time, permanently impacting long-term development and well-being (Rycus & Hughes, 1998).

While early identification and timely intervention can greatly improve the likelihood of positive developmental outcomes for these children, accessing appropriate developmental and remedial services can be a significant challenge for families and agencies. Identifying and coordinating specialized medical care, developmental assessment, special education, respite care, psychological or psychiatric services, financial assistance, recreational programs, and supportive family counseling is a complex and often daunting undertaking (Children and Family Research Center, 2004). Many child welfare agencies depend on community providers and other service systems to meet the specialized needs of these children and their families. Unfortunately, in many communities, specialized services may be unavailable, underdeveloped, poorly coordinated, or inconsistently applied (Rycus & Hughes, 1998). This creates additional challenges for workers who have case management responsibility for these families.

The Importance of Competency-Based Training

One essential strategy for improving child welfare services to children with disabling conditions is to provide specialized training to the caseworkers and supervisors who serve them. While a variety of training resources have been developed for this purpose, the child welfare profession has yet to uniformly support training at the scope and depth necessary to serve these children most effectively. A comprehensive, competency-based training model provides the formal structure to support the development and delivery of timely and relevant training to staff serving children with special needs and their families.

Competencies are statements that incorporate the knowledge and skills necessary for the performance of job tasks (Rycus & Hughes, 2000). They are derived from a job/task analysis that determines the specific knowledge and skills necessary to achieve organizational and case-related outcomes in a manner consistent with standards of “best practice.” Competencies are used for a variety of purposes. They support the assessment and priority ranking of each worker’s individual training needs, with the highest priority needs occurring when considerable development is needed in competencies that are highly relevant to a worker’s job. Supervisors use needs assessment data to devise individualized training and development plans with their staff. And, compiled needs assessment data for an entire unit, agency, or service system enables training developers to design and provide workshops and other training resources to address high priority needs in a timely manner.

Sequentially organizing competencies by their levels of learning (Rycus & Hughes, 2001) also promotes development of the most suitable training strategies to address each competency area. Classroom training and self-directed learning can help workers acquire the necessary knowledge base and understanding of a particular topic. However, to develop and master new skills, learners must apply their knowledge in the real world. Training to develop workers’ skills requires opportunities to model and practice new approaches and behaviors, to receive constructive feedback, and to be positively reinforced and supported by the work environment. Appropriate training strategies include educational supervision, coaching, peer supervision, interactive distance learning, and shadowing professionals who have mastered the skills.

Proposed Competencies for Child Welfare Caseworkers

In 1985, the Institute for Human Services (IHS) began development of competencies that delineate the array of knowledge and skills essential to provide effective child welfare services to children with special needs. Child welfare and developmental disability professionals worked together to review relevant research, identify activities essential to recognizing and serving these children, and articulate the specialized knowledge and skills needed to perform those activities. The competencies were used to develop standardized training for child welfare caseworkers and supervisors in identifying and serving children with a variety of disabilities.

It is important to note that training in these specialized competencies must be based on a solid foundation of core-level knowledge and skills. Children with special needs are fundamentally no different from other children served by the child welfare system. They need safety, stability, nurturance, stimulation, love, and support in permanent families. Effective work with these children and their families first requires mastery of universal child welfare skills: family engagement and empowerment, safety and risk assessment, comprehensive family assessment, case planning and service provision, placement prevention, family reunification, case management, and interviewing. With that caveat, the following are key specialized competencies identified for child welfare case workers servingchildrenwith developmental, behavioral, and emotional disabilities:

  • Caseworker understands how developmental disabilities, emotional disorders, and behavior problems in children and youth can be botha consequence of child abuse or neglect, and a stressor to which some parents may respond with abuse or neglect.
  • Caseworker understands the importance of early identification and intervention to help children and youth with developmental, emotional, or behavior disorders develop to their potential.
  • Caseworker knows the nature and indicators of the primary developmental disabilities, including mental retardation, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, autism, and pervasive developmental disorder (PDD).
  • Caseworker knows the potential impacts of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)/fetal alcohol effects (FAE), attention deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADD/ADHD), and prenatal drug exposure on children’s development and behavior.
  • Caseworker knows the nature and indicators of emotional and behavioral disorders common in maltreated children and youth, including depression, anxiety, insecure or disordered attachment, aggression, impulsivity, and anti-social behavior.
  • Caseworker can observe the development and behavior of children and youth, and recognize developmental delays or disabilities, emotional and behavior disorders, and abnormal patterns of development.
  • Caseworker can refer children for comprehensive developmental assessment, and can use this information to plan and access individualized medical, educational, social, developmental, and recreational services.
  • Caseworker knows the prevalent negative stereotypic attitudes and misconceptions regarding persons with developmental disabilities or mental illness, how these attitudes and stereotypes can interfere with the provision of effective services, and the benefits of normalization in promoting children’s development.
  • Caseworker can identify children with developmental, emotional, or behavioral conditions who are at heightened risk of abuse, neglect, or placement disruption in their families, and can determine when out-of-home care is the only option to assure a child’s safety and well-being.

In addition to the competencies above, the following are competencies for servingfamiliesof children with developmental behavioral, and emotional disabilities:

  • Caseworker understands the impact of families’ cultural backgrounds on beliefs about and responses to developmental disabilities, emotional disorders, and behavior problems, and can provide culturally sensitive interventions within each family’s own community and cultural context.
  • Caseworker understands the stresses and challenges experienced by primary, foster, kinship, and adoptive families whose children have developmental, emotional, or behavior problems, and the potential impacts on both quality of care and placement stability.
  • Caseworker can identify strengths and capacities of families caring for children with special needs, and enter into collaborative partnerships with them to enhance their child management and caregiving capacities, and to facilitate access to needed services.
  • Caseworker knows how to help families adapt their parenting and behavior management strategies to be appropriate for a child’s special needs and developmental level.
  • Caseworker understands the importance of linking families with educational, supportive, and respite services within their neighborhoods, extended families, and communities, to reduce stress and prevent crisis.
  • Caseworker understands the challenges and barriers encountered by families in accessing specialized services and resources, and can arrange or engage in personal, legal, and system advocacy on behalf of children and families.
  • Caseworker understands the range of placement options available for children with developmental, behavioral, and emotional conditions, and knows the personal and family characteristics associated with successful kinship care, foster care, or adoption of children with special needs.

These competencies form the foundation of standardized training for child welfare workers. As a permanent part of IHS’ Universe of Child Welfare Competencies they help ensure that child welfare workers have the knowledge and skills necessary to providing effective child welfare services to children with special needs and their families.


  • Children and Family Research Center, Fostering Results. (2004). View from the bench: Obstacles to safety & permanency for children in foster care. Urbana Champaign, IL: School of Social Work, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

  • Rycus, J. S., & Hughes, R. C. (1998). Field guide to child welfare. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.

  • Rycus, J. S., & Hughes, R. C. (2000). What is competency-based inservice training? Columbus, OH: Institute for Human Services.

  • Rycus, J. S., & Hughes, R. C. (2001). Levels of learning: A framework for organizing inservice training. Columbus, OH: Institute for Human Services.