Interview with Sasha Chelsea McGowan, MSW on Child Welfare Social Work

About Sasha Chelsea McGowan, MSW: Ms. McGowan is a Continuing Services social worker in Contra Costa County, CA where she works with foster children and their families residing in Richmond who need family reunification, family maintenance, and/or long-term foster care services and support. She has a longstanding professional background in working with youth and families–prior to receiving her MSW, Ms. McGowan worked with foster youth in group homes and in homeless shelters with young adult and domestic violence-involved populations.

Ms. McGowan received her MSW with a concentration in Children and Families from UC Berkeley in 2014, and prior to that she earned her BA of Sociology, with a concentration in Law from UC San Diego. Her first field internship during her MSW program was at East Bay Children’s Law Offices, where she conducted assessments of foster youth for their dependency Court attorneys. Her second internship was with Contra Costa County Children and Family Services Bureau as a Child Protective Services intern. During her MSW, Ms. McGowan received Title IV-E funding, which provided a $37,000 stipend over two years in return for a two-year contract post-graduation working for Child Protective Services in the state of California. She plans to continue her career in public child welfare following this contract. Sasha Chelsea McGowan was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] What types of challenges do the children and families you work with face, and how do you counsel and support them?

[Sasha Chelsea McGowan, MSW] I am currently employed with Child Protective Services at the Contra Costa County Children and Family Services Bureau, and I am a “backend” worker — I receive cases that have been investigated and have had allegations of child maltreatment found true by the Dependency Court of Contra Costa County. I receive Family Reunification cases (working to reunite children in foster care with their family of origin), Family Maintenance cases (working to stabilize families that are able to remain intact), and Long-term Foster Care cases (case managing foster youth who were not able to reunify with families or create more permanent connections). The “ideal” case load in my field is around 20 children per worker, and my caseload varies from 21 to 32 children, often in large sibling sets. I am responsible for referring the parents to services to help abate the child safety issue, such as drug treatment and mental health services. I am also responsible for the “concurrent plan” for the children — if they are not able to return to the care of a parent, I work to identify adults that could provide a permanent home for them, such as relatives or adoptive families. I have been with Contra Costa County for eighteen months.

In the child welfare field, we are focused on one thing–minimum sufficient level of care. This is the community based (and judicially supported) standard of care that we require families to provide for their children in regards to their physical, emotional, and developmental needs. To determine if a family is meeting this minimum standard, we ask three questions: Is the family providing for their child’s basic needs? Is the parent’s parenting practice, such as with physical discipline, within our community standard or outside of it? Does the parent’s behavior fall within reasonable limits, as judged by that same community? The main challenge our families face is reaching and maintaining that standard, and the roadblocks to that are numerous: mental health, substance use, domestic violence, poverty, developmental delay, repeating family trauma histories, and innumerable unique instances. When a parent fails to provide the minimum sufficient amount of protection, provision, and support to their child, or a high level of risk exists to the well being of the child, we intervene.

Every single individual I work with by definition has a trauma history–at the very least, child and parent were separated traumatically, or services have been forced into their lives and shattered their privacy. Our cases are identified through measuring Minimum Sufficient Level of Care–the amount of protection, provision, and support that a parent is required to provide to their child. When they fail to meet that standard, or a high level of risk exists to the well being of the child, we intervene. We receive our referrals from the community, often from people close to the family or who care about the child. Also, many professions (such as teachers, police officers, and child care workers) are mandated reporters who are legally bound to report suspected child maltreatment.

Foster care is not therapeutic or good for children; it is a last resort. Children in foster care struggle with a sense of shame, isolation, self-blame (especially if they were the ones who “told” on their parents), and of course feelings of loss and separation. It can be frustrating as a case manager to observe these clinical symptoms and know that I will need to refer the child to other professionals to intervene. However, as a case manager, I am in a position to hear what the child needs, observe their behavior, and take input from their service providers to help meet their needs.

The most vital thing I am able to do is establish visitation and contact between a child and their family, in a safe and structured form. Often, when I get cases visitation has been on hold during the investigative process, and by prioritizing that, we see increased reunification outcomes — one of the few indicators of a good reunification prognosis is consistent and frequent visitation. Additionally, we screen our foster children on a regular basis for anxiety, depression, and symptoms of mental health issues, and are able to refer them to therapy and group support.

For children in long term foster care, I prioritize their long-term connections — just because a child is no longer with their parent does not mean that parent can’t support and love that child, and that the child won’t benefit from that contact.

When working with parents, often the largest barrier is bureaucracy and distrust. I work in an impoverished community, and I am socioeconomically different from our majority populations. When I receive the case, the parents’ contact so far with our Bureau has been investigative and accusatory. The initial court dates in child welfare systems are focused on identifying the “true facts“ of the maltreatment and finding allegations of child maltreatment against the parents true. For parents with criminal justice involvement, this feels like a familiar and traumatic process, where one stands in front of a judge and is accused of being a “bad parent” (or at least, many parents feel that way). As the worker responsible for bringing families back together and keeping them together, I often have to start from less than scratch to build relationships and rapport. It is not unusual for parents to be in worse circumstances than when we first began our investigation, as stress affects many of our common issues (like substance abuse and mental health) and worsens them.

My focus when working with parents is based in respect and empathy. I believe that every parent loves their child, but barriers exist between love and providing adequate care for their children. Those barriers can be structural inequality, personal characteristics or history, or multiple realms of family dysfunction causing distortion. If I can work with a parent to help them self-identify those barriers, the prognosis of return improves significantly. I walk them through the “worries” that led us to intervene in their parenting of their children, look at their strengths and capacity, and identify what we would need to see in order to know their children would be safe. By trying to be behaviorally based, concrete, and direct, I can often help parents better understand the process and have self-efficacy within an unfortunately oppressive system.

A huge barrier for our families is the court timelines. If your child is under three years old, parents have only six months to address the issues leading to CPS involvement before we move towards an alternative permanency option for the child such as adoption–this is also why we concurrently plan, and place infants primarily with family members or potentially adoptive parents. This is based on the negative outcomes of children spending years in foster care without consistent caregivers in early childhood. With children over three, parents have twelve months. For chronic safety issues, such as severe mental health impairment or drug use, this is often a vastly challenging timeline to adhere to, especially with natural consequences of recovery like relapse. As a social worker, it is my job to make sure that the parents understand the immediacy of our system, and if they falter, to help them get back on track as swiftly as possible.

[] Could you explain the structure of your team at Contra Costa CPS?

[Sasha Chelsea McGowan, MSW] As I mentioned, I am a “backend” social worker, which is referred to in our county as “Continuing Services.” The basic structure of most counties is as follows, as a family moves through a child welfare case:

  • Screening/Hotline Social Worker: Answers calls regarding possible child maltreatment.
  • Emergency Response Social Worker: Investigates allegations of child maltreatment, and is responsible for determining if a case is opened on a family or a child is detained and placed in foster care.
  • Court/Dependency Investigations Social Worker: Once a child is detained by the Court (ie: taken into foster care), this social worker continues to investigate to clarify the allegations of maltreatment and develop a case plan composed of services and behavioral change necessary to return a child to the care of a parent. They work closely with the Dependency Court to make decisions about goals for the next six months of the case. In my county, this job is covered in my position, “continuing services.”
  • Family Reunification/Family Maintenance Social Worker: Once the Court has taken jurisdiction over a child and determined a plan of action, it is this social worker’s job to work with the family as a whole to reunite the child, keep the child with their family, and mitigate the safety risks that were present in the home. This is also my job as a continuing services worker!
  • Long Term Foster Care/Transitions to Permanency/Adoptions: These are specialized units that address the needs of children who are not able to reunite with their family of origin. In continuing services, I work with children younger than the age of 16 who were not able to reunify with their parents, and at age 16 they transfer to “Transitions to Permanency” where a social worker with special training will work with them on skills for independence and transitioning to adulthood. Adoptions is exactly what it sounds like — at the time that it is determined a child cannot reunify with their parent, if they are determined to be adoptable, the case is transferred to the specialized adoptions unit that conducts home studies and writes the intensive reports necessary before the termination of parental rights.

From Court/Dependency investigations onward is considered “backend” social work, and my particular specialty is family reunification, though my caseload is diverse. We receive specialized training for each unit, and I have participated in the basic training for each of the above specializations. However, you really begin to learn the job once you are assigned to a unit and have a supervisor to guide you. Each unit is four to eight social workers with a supervisor above them, and a division manager above all the units at each office.

California requires that child welfare workers participate in “Core curriculum” training, which takes place over the course of your first two years on the job–many counties make sure you complete this curriculum in the first six months. It includes trainings on basic child welfare principles, interviewing, foster care placements and permanency, specialized unit training, and diversity/human rights modules. Once again, the real learning begins when you begin handling cases and applying the principles you’ve learned in your MSW and in training. The training is focused on informing MSW graduates who may not have had any previous child welfare training –for Title IV-E recipients, it is a nice refresher course.

Each county divides the responsibilities of its social workers differently. Contra Costa has a semi-“vertical” model, where once a case is past the investigation stage a single social worker will carry the case through the transition to permanency. I receive cases where children have been detained in the last two weeks, and I close them only when a family has reunified and stabilized, when a child in long term foster care reached the age of sixteen, or when a case moves towards adoption or legal guardianship. It is not unheard of to carry long term foster care cases for four to five years.

Our units also have support people, such as casework assistants who help us supervise visits between children and their families, clerks who assist us in managing the massive paperwork involved in the court system, and family support people who work directly with the parents to make navigating our system smoother.

[] Why did you decide to work in child welfare social work, and what have been some of your most rewarding experiences during your career?

[Sasha Chelsea McGowan, MSW] I knew that I wanted to work in child welfare before I even knew there was an educational incentive to do so. I have worked with foster children since 2009, and it was a frustrating experience — you interact with the children and their parents, but you have no power to effect change and have no standing to counsel families towards stability. It felt very much like performing triage without any necessary tools. I looked towards the county workers, some of whom I respected very highly, and made that my goal–they were the individuals with the tools.

I find my job rewarding every day. Our profession has a bad reputation — we are “baby snatchers,” perpetuators of racial bias and oppression, and punishing of those involuntarily impoverished or living in unsafe areas. Historically, this is completely true; an example local to my county would be the crack epidemic of the 1980s–our county removed children born positive for cocaine from their families and bypassed reunification without doing safety assessments or acknowledging that an imperfect family may still be better than growing up in foster care. Currently, a positive drug screen on an infant is not a mandatory child abuse investigation–hospitals screen families for risk and safety, and are only supposed to report to our Bureau if a family presents with significant risk factors in addition to the positive toxicology screen. Country wide, child welfare agencies are now required to conform to the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, enforcing strict standards of treatment for Native children, due to a long history of separating and subjugating Native families.

But as a part of the bureaucracy, I also have the tools to change that. We set our own tone for our work, and with a supportive supervisor and a county aimed towards the future, we have the ability to do an enormous amount of good for our community. Working in a systemically oppressed majority Black and Hispanic community, every single day I have the opportunity to review my work and decipher bias and values being imposed on these families and attempt to make rational, concrete, and equitable recommendations to our Court. It is even part of our job to educate those professions we work with, like attorneys and judges, on issues of social justice and advocate for clients when necessary.

It is an enormous amount of work, and I have definitely considered alternative careers, but this is what I consider my calling. In the last two months, I have arranged for a child to be adopted by her aunt in Mississippi when her mother was incarcerated, I have reunited three families, and I have convinced a judge to dismiss a case entirely based on inconsistent foundational facts. I would never have such an opportunity in any other career. I also am constantly amazed by the capacity for change and growth exhibited by parents who are confronted with the reality of their children being apart from them, and I consider it my duty to match their efforts with mine.

My best and most recent moment was bringing in a mother to a family meeting where we reviewed her entire case history and discussed her progress and our plans for moving forward — this was after six months of services. It was a difficult conversation, as it was decided by our Bureau that she was not ready for her children to be returned to her care. It was very emotional for her, and she was clearly upset. Even so, at the end of the meeting when a neutral party surveyed her as part of our family meeting program pilot, she stated that she felt heard, she didn’t feel judged, and that she still felt motivated to get her children back and felt like she could do so with the support of her social worker. That feedback was one of the most touching moments I’ve had, especially coming from an individual who I had just given devastating news. Currently, our plan is to return her children by June 2015.

[] On the other hand, what are some of the most challenging aspects of your job? How would you recommend MSW students who wish to work in child welfare social work prepare for these challenges?

[Sasha Chelsea McGowan, MSW] I mentioned my feelings about this in the above question briefly, but allow me to expand.

Child welfare is not an easy job, and it is not a job for everyone. It requires a high level of work intensity, duration, and capacity. You are often not able to drop everything and go home at five o’clock — you are responsible for the well being of the children on your caseload, and your actions affect families directly.

I have been working with MSW interns for the past seven months, and many of them were shocked at the adjustment necessary to complete this job. Many are uncomfortable with the “minimum sufficient level of care” as they wish to give the children the best home they possibly can, rather than a merely adequate one. They also struggle with the expectations of the Court, and the intensity of record keeping associated with the position. Another huge hurdle is for former clinicians and therapists, who are welcomed with open arms into our profession, but struggle with the limitations of case management vs. a therapeutic relationship with the clients. There is no 50 minute hour, where you engage in therapy with a client for those 50 minutes and then wave goodbye until next week with limited further responsibility, and there is also no hand holding a parent through every step of their case plan–we are an evaluator of them in equal capacity to being their advocate. It is a balance that my supervisor describes as “enough rope to have them pull their own weight, but not enough to hang themselves.” I am relatively new to child welfare and I am still struggling with my boundaries and my efficacy with families.

Vicarious trauma is real and daily. You are working with families that have gone through difficult moments, and occasionally you will be given a case with outright cruelty involved. Sexual abuse cases are often triggering to child welfare workers, as well as serious physical abuse. Our job requires us to work with perpetrators as well as victims, and that is not an easy mindset to settle into.

However, this is my career and I am very confident in going forward in this position. I feel that in equal proportion to its difficulties, this profession is rewarding. There are moments of heart break, and families that are not able to overcome their dysfunction, but you were there working with them and you did your best to help them, and that effort is often the first time those families have had that amount of validation and investment in them. Our job is to care for the safety, well-being, and permanency of children, and regardless of outcome, if you have worked daily on that task you come away with a significant sense of satisfaction.

[] For social work students who are interested in working in child welfare, and possibly with Child Protective Services, what advice do you have for them in terms of preparing for this difficult field of work?

[Sasha Chelsea McGowan, MSW] I will give the same advice to new students that I do to our current interns: you will never master this profession, and you will be challenged every single day, and the best you can do is adjust your style and your approach so that you don’t make the same mistake twice. It feels very high stakes, but humans are fallible and learn from missteps as well as successes. This career pays well for the social work field, is unionized, and can come with educational incentives. Those are perks to encourage those with the passion and even-temper to cope with the trials of the job, and should not encourage those who fear the job or know they would not be able to work with the diverse set of clients to jump into this field.

I highly recommend that MSW students take an elective class on the history of social work in the United States, as the history of racial and socioeconomic oppression still runs strong in many of our impoverished and marginalized communities. For instance, I speak to families regularly that believe that I personally make a profit or commission off of adopting their children out to white families. The background information on the 1980s crack epidemic and the removal of infants with positive toxicology from their mothers is of significant importance, especially where I work in the Bay Area.

I also recommend taking any Child Welfare specific classes offered that will go over safety planning, risk assessment, and the convoluted Court system. A good basis in risk assessment, defining harm and danger to children, and how to make impartial decisions on extremely inflammatory subjects is key. We hire many individuals without specific child welfare training if they are able to master these tools.

There are many opportunities to volunteer with foster youth, and many job opportunities at lower levels enable people to work with these youth directly. As I said, I worked for several years with foster youth before I entered my MSW program. Group homes are a good look into the intensity of trauma and reactivity that foster children can experience when deprived of stability. Additionally, there are critical county programs that are often looking for volunteers–the most significant of which is the CASA program (Court Appointed Special Advocate). MSW students can complete a short training course, and be assigned a foster youth to advocate for in court. CASAs are meant to build a relationship with a foster youth that a social worker might not be able to, and to provide them with an adult, educated voice to speak for them in the judicial system. I interact with many CASAs as part of my work, and several of my colleagues began their journey into child welfare through their volunteer work as a CASA.

Even in unrelated internships, you will often encounter foster youth at substance use intervention programs, mental health crisis lines, and afterschool diversion programs. Get to know them as human beings, and use that knowledge to decide what role you would like to take in their lives. A hands-on clinician at heart may be unhappy as a case manager, but I knew as soon as I saw the changes that a good social worker could make on a child’s life that I wanted to be a part of it.

Thank you Ms. McGowan for your time and insights into child welfare social work.

Last updated: April 2020