Posted Thursday, March 15, 2018 by Rich Bowlen

How Does the Opioid Epidemic Impact Child Welfare Caseworkers?

Kristi Burre has spent almost 20 years working in public service and child protection, but she’s never seen a greater need to support her caseworkers than she does today.

As Deputy Director of Fairfield County Child and Adult Protective Services in Ohio, Kristi has a front row seat to watch how the opioid epidemic wreaks havoc both inside and outside the agency’s walls.

As a result, she says, “The needs of our families, the needs of our children, and the needs of our system are more critical than they’ve ever been before.”

Kristi and I recently joined APHSA for a Webinar, “The Ripple Effects of Opioids on Child Welfare,” to discuss how increasing caseloads, information overload, secondary trauma, turnover, and other “ripple effects” of the opioid epidemic are further compounding an already complex situation. Keep reading for a short summary.


Ohio is ranked No. 1 in the nation for number of heroin deaths, with a 19% increase in children entering foster care. There are 15,000 children that need placement, but only 7,200 foster families are available to take them.

The number of children entering foster care in Ohio has increased, largely due to opioids and parental drug addiction
Source: Public Children's Services Association of Ohio (PCSAO)

In Fairfield County, children are remaining in care twice as long as they were a few years ago. For the first time in the history of the agency, 31% of kids are in permanent custody.

Fairfield County has its highest percentage of children in permanent custody to date, largely due to the opioid epidemic

Of course, none of these issues are unique to Ohio. Agencies and caseworkers across the country are experiencing similar trends as Kristi and her staff, and dealing with the same resulting ripple effects.

Let’s look closer at a couple—secondary trauma to caseworkers, and information overload.


Secondary Trauma to Caseworkers

As more children and families fall victim to the opioid epidemic, so do many of the workers and supervisors working tirelessly to protect them.

Any worker who has had to tell a child who has already experienced so much trauma that he or she has now lost a parent to opioids can attest: the loss for the child is absolutely devastating to the caseworker, too.

This secondary trauma leads to higher turnover, which then taxes the already limited supply of caseworkers who have to pick up the pieces, and threatens continuity of care for the children.

For the agency, this increases recruitment and training costs, as well as overtime costs for remaining workers taking on additional cases.

Opioids cause secondary trauma on child welfare caseworkers
Source: PCSAO


Information Overload

Child welfare caseworkers already struggle with how to manage the amount of information available to them when making safety decisions.

During the Webinar, Kristi highlighted several factors that make opioid-related cases even more complex, leading to even more information workers are expected to be able to recall and apply.

For example, the longer a child is involved in the system, the more information that’s collected during the life cycle of his or her case. Additionally, children of parents with substance abuse issues are at a higher risk of developing behavioral and mental health problems, which leads to more evaluations and related paperwork.

This increase in information is both a blessing and a curse.

On one hand, workers have access to more insight when they need to make a quick decision. The problem is, information is coming in so quickly and from so many different sources that it’s hard for workers who are already stretched thin to keep up.

Turnover also compounds the problem, negatively impacting new workers’ ability to make progress.

Opioids negatively impact caseworkers' ability to manage critical information about a child


So, what can child welfare agencies do to manage all this information in a way that drives positive outcomes?

As you know, the goal when working with kids who have lost parents to opioids isn’t to just find any placement, but to find the right placement—and ultimately permanency—based on that child’s unique needs.

However, when information gets buried, workers don’t have the whole story of the child’s history, which makes it difficult to identify the best placement options, or prepare the families taking children into custody to provide the best care.

The good news is, as technology advances with concepts like cognitive search and case discovery, more tools are starting to become available to help caseworkers better manage information overload and other ripple effects of opioids.

Traverse® from Northwoods is one of those case discovery tools that empowers caseworkers, supervisors, and directors to focus on what’s most important: reducing trauma to children and families.

Rich Bowlen’s goal is and always has been to give his very best day in and day out to do the most good for the most kids. Rich is dedicated to improving the lives of caseworkers and social workers so they can focus on what they do best: supporting the children, adults, and families that rely on the agency’s care.


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