Personal Story

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

Serving Children and Youth with Disabilities: A N.C. Social Work Supervisor's Perspective

David Fee is a social work supervisor in the Mecklenburg County Youth and Family Services, Mecklenburg, North Carolina, which includes the city of Charlotte. In this interview, he talks about his experience serving children and youth with disabilities in the county child welfare system.

Q: Briefly describe your child protective services (CPS) context.

The Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services has a separate division that covers child protective services: Youth and Family Services (YFS). The YFS agency has three basic divisions – Investigations, Family Intervention, and Permanency Planning. I work in the Permanency Planning Unit. Permanency Planning is responsible for all aspects of a child’s care, especially placement. We have 10 teams of social workers, plus a specialty unit that deals with teenagers with significant mental health needs. I supervise a team of permanency planning social workers that varies between four and six in number. At any given time, Mecklenburg County has about 1,000 children in custody. The number of children and youth with disabilities in placement are unknown.

Q: From your observations as a supervisor, what are the things that CPS workers struggle the most with when it comes to working with families and kids with disabilities?

Most of our social workers do not have a basic awareness of disability issues. They lack appropriate vocabulary such as “person-first language.” When one disability-related intervention is put in place, it is tempting to assume that the entire situation has been resolved. Workers also struggle when children are reunified with parents whose understanding of disability issues is also inadequate. Our social workers are not equipped to educate them. Disability resources are not well known within child welfare. Collaboration appears to be somewhat lacking between the two systems so workers are not “armed” with the resources and information they need to serve families with children who have disabilities. Social workers receive plenty of training in substance abuse, sexual abuse, the legal system, working with families, etc. I’m not aware of any formal training on disabilities except what they receive in college or graduate school.

Q: What is your role in supporting CPS workers so they are prepared to work with youth with disabilities?

My role is to assist them in finding “experts” who are knowledgeable in providing appropriate services to children with disabilities. When a worker on my team encounters a case involving a child with an educational disability, I refer that worker to our staff educational liaisons. If a worker has a case involving a child with a physical disability, I refer the worker to our agency nurses who assist with cases involving medical issues. The local Area Mental Health Authority is our main resource for assisting children with disabilities related to their mental health. Developmental disability social workers, who also work for the county, assist us in cases where the child or youth has an intellectual or developmental disability. Overall, I think my agency has adequate resources and working relationships with disability providers, but worker awareness and training are still inadequate.

Q: What are systemic barriers to successful services for children with disabilities who are in the CPS system?

We face numerous systemic barriers. Five appear to impact us on a daily basis. First, we don’t have many disability advocacy organizations, or at least ones that interact with us in child protection. Instead of coming together to help children, we seem to work in isolation. Second, we are often bound by court orders that mandate a service that is not readily available. Our agency is then put in the position of trying to create that service or “force” a provider, such as another county agency, to create the service. This can result in an adversarial rather than collaborative relationship. Third, we need to collaborate with the county developmental disability workers; these workers are located in another building and the staff is largely unknown to the child protection staff. Fourth, our agency is affected by budget shortages and high caseloads (like everyone else) and it is more difficult for us to create specialized services that may be needed by children with disabilities that we serve. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the lack of disability awareness and training for child protection workers.

Q: What can you do as supervisor to address these barriers?

I would like to maintain a library of disability resources in my office. Workers would have the ability to reference disability-related text to increase their knowledge on the issues that children and youth with disabilities face, their needs, and ways to provide appropriate services to them. I would also like to make better use of the Internet for the same purpose; social workers are on the go constantly, and surfing for information is a luxury they cannot usually afford. I can do more of that and share the most updated disability information with them. I also intend to make better use of our monthly unit meetings to teach my workers about disability awareness, person-first language, and basic communication approaches that can be used when working with children with disabilities, such as intellectual and developmental disabilities.