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The Role of Community Level Social Service Workers in Care Reform

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By Stela Grigoras, PhD, Director, Partnership for Every Child, Moldova, and Florence Martin, Director, Better Care Network

"The work of the community social worker is very important. The better the community social worker works, in collaboration with the community multidisciplinary team, the fewer children there are in the child care system. They are working to address the family situations early in the life of the problem. So if they identify problems and start working with this family early, fewer children will need alternative care. Once children are placed in family-based alternative care, community social workers will monitor their wellbeing and work for future family reintegration.                    (foster care social worker, Ungheni)

Children living outside of family care around the world

There are children without adequate family care in every country in the world — low, middle and high income, stable and fragile. Data on children in alternative care are notoriously unreliable, but estimates range between 2 and 8 million children living in institutional care. Research has also consistently found that the vast majority of children in these facilities have families, including at least one parent alive, while an even larger proportion have relatives. Instead, a combination of poverty, discrimination, lack of access to basic services and the relative ease of placement in care, are the main underlying factors behind their placement. There is growing recognition of the central role of family in child development and well-being and of the detrimental impact that loss of family care has on children. Increasing numbers of countries are working to make changes to their child care systems and mechanisms to promote and strengthen the capacity of families, prevent separation and ensure appropriate family-based alternative care options are available. Countries also increasingly understand that a strong social service workforce is integral to these care reforms.

The situation in Moldova

The population of the Republic of Moldova is 3,557,634, of which 20% are children under the age of 18. In January 2015, there were 3,644 children in large-scale residential care and 11,573 children in family-based alternative care, while in 2007 (at the beginning of the child care reform) there were 11,544 children in large-scale residential care and 6,562 children in family-based alternative care. Although the child care reform has resulted in significant positive steps forward in decreasing the reliance on large-scale residential care and establishing family-based alterative care options, issues such as family violence, alcohol abuse, parental economic migration, and limited access to effective primary social services and family support type services are common risk factors resulting in child and family vulnerability.

Community level workers are well-positioned to help

In Moldova the community social service workforce consists of Community Social Workers (CSWs). They are general social workers providing assistance at the community level to a range of clients, including children and families at risk of separation or out-of-home children. They provide individual case work, support households in applying for cash benefits and undertake community mobilization activities. There are around 1,200 CSWs deployed in the system of social assistance in Moldova, one per community of more than 3,000 population.

CSWs are working on a regular basis with children experiencing neglect, abuse and violence in the home and with their parents, extended family members and alternative care-givers. CSWs are important actors in the government’s policy of deinstitutionalization as they are the frontline in prevention of child separation and reintegration of children from institutional care to their birth or extended families. CSWs are engaged in referring children to alternative care and monitoring the well-being and quality of care of children in family-based alternative care, such as foster care, formal and informal guardianship, and family-type children’s homes.

Ways that community level workers are engaged in helping

CSWs have the following functions and responsibilities related to case management and working with children and families.

  • Identification, referral and assessment - CSWs decide in the first instance whether a case should be opened and if so, whether it is a family support case which they can manage themselves using community resources or if it is a child protection case requiring a multi-disciplinary team meeting and subsequent referral to the District Child Protection Specialists and Gate-Keeping Commission. 
  • Planning, coordinating and implementing programs of support including referrals to other services - CSWs coordinate the community multi-disciplinary team, provide direct support to children and families at risk in the form of advice and practical support, are involved in removing children into care or support reintegration of children with their birth or extended families and into the community from institutional and family-based care. CSWs also have responsibilities for mobilizing support from other community actors to support individual children and families. In some districts of Moldova CSWs are involved in assessing potential adopters, guardians or foster carers of children at the request of District Child Protection Specialists who are responsible for these types of assessments. CSWs also have the responsibility to monitor children in placements with legal guardians, foster carers and in informal guardianship arrangements.

The type of support they need

In order to carry out this work effectively, CSWs need to be equipped with professional social work skills and knowledge so they can assess the needs of children and families; the socio-economic and cultural systems in the wider community; and to assess risk, identify the best interests of children based on a solid foundation of age-appropriate child development knowledge and plan and provide appropriate levels of intervention. Currently the training opportunities are provided mainly by NGOs and the Ministry of Labour, Social Protection and Family; very few districts are able to plan and provide initial and ongoing training opportunities to CSWs.  

The CSW works in a matrix management structure with multiple reporting lines. The management arrangements vary slightly from district to district, but main structures and lines of reporting are largely similar as they are dictated by the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection and Family MLSPF guidance, including the CSWs’ job description, the mechanism for professional supervision of social workers, case management guide and by legislation – Law on Special Protection of Children, Law on Social Assistance, The National Strategy for Decentralization 2012-2015 and other legal and policy documents.

A performance management system is designed at the moment for the community social service workforce. The future appraisal system is meant to ensure a robust link with the current supervision process, which is the foundation upon which good appraisals are built. It is a two-way process that monitors, supports and develops good practice for CSWs.

Join us during Social Service Workforce Week in celebrating this work

Today we are featuring worker profiles of community level workers engaged in care reform in two countries. Please take some time to read these worker profiles on our website:

More information on this topic can be found in this working paper on The Role of the Social Service Workforce Development in Care Reform, recently released by the Alliance and the Better Care Network. Additional resources on care reform and community level workers can be found in the Alliance resource database here. 

Also take a few minutes to review this webinar: Deinstitutionalizing the Alternative Care System for Children: Implications for the social service workforce with learning from Rwanda and Moldova

This video provides an overview of the way in which child and youth care workers from the Isibindi program in South Africa are supporting children and families.  It is produced by the National Association of Child Care Workers and UNICEF. 

Do you have more examples or resources? Join the conversation and tweet them using #SSWWeek or email us with updates and the Alliance will share your work with the broader network.