John James was 25 years old and had no experience with children when he started as a child welfare caseworker in Mobile, Ala. He was almost immediately out of his depth.

“I walked in the door, right out of college, and had probably 40 child abuse investigations given to me within four months,” said James, now deputy director of family and adult services for the Alabama Department of Human Resources, which oversees child welfare.

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Across the state, average caseloads were 65. Within six months, James was the only one of five people hired with him who hadn’t quit.

But Alabama’s child welfare system was on the cusp of wholesale reform that took place county by county after a sweeping 1988 lawsuit filed by advocates on behalf of a foster child known as R.C.

When James moved to a county where those reforms were underway, his caseloads fell dramatically — a maximum of 12 investigations or 18 ongoing cases per caseworker. He got in-depth, case-specific training that focused on “family-centered practice.”

“It was a completely different environment,” he said.

Even the most devoted caseworkers can’t succeed without an adequate toolbox, including training on how to assess a child’s safety while approaching their parents as partners, reasonable caseloads that allow time for thoughtful assessments, and timely access to a broad spectrum of services for families.

In Alabama, the R.C. lawsuit triggered an influx of funding that allowed for new hires and reduced caseloads. But caseload standards were also enshrined in statute, anticipating that future budget shortfalls could make the child welfare agency vulnerable to staffing cuts — just like what happened in Arizona after the 2007 recession.

“Workers have to know their families. They have to know the kids,” said Ivor Groves, the court monitor appointed to ensure Alabama was abiding by the consent decree. “The bigger your caseload is, the harder that is.”

The state also “professionalized” its child welfare workforce, requiring that all caseworkers have a bachelor’s degree in social work and get licensed within one year of employment. The state worked with universities to graduate more students with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work as part of the recruitment effort.

High-quality training for caseworkers, which reduced the number of children coming into foster care unnecessarily, was the backbone of reform. Consultants brought in had to overcome deep skepticism on the part of caseworkers, who in Alabama — like today in Arizona — are accustomed to the latest fad forcing changes in their daily practice. Often, those efforts are abandoned when new leadership takes over, or the political winds shift.

“Historically, we’ve tried to change practice by writing rules and threatening to sue caseworkers if they don’t follow them,” Groves said. “That has not worked out very well. What you want is an inspired workforce.”

ROBUST TRAINING

In Alabama, the child welfare agency implemented a rigorous, eight-week training program that focused on identifying families’ strengths, engaging respectfully with struggling parents and keeping children at home whenever possible.

National consultants worked one-on-one with employees like Angela McClintock, who in 1991 was a 25-year-old caseworker in Mobile, Ala. Before the training, “I thought everything was a threat,” she said. “I felt like I knew what I was doing. I would assess the needs myself and put a plan in place to fix you.”

Her training involved four week-long classroom modules on case planning and intervention, assessments and helping skills. Each week was followed by a week of field training that emphasized the importance of persuading parents to become willing partners with the child welfare agency.

Supervisors went through the training first, so they could provide close mentorship and guidance to front-line caseworkers, which was pivotal to caseworkers’ success.

“The training, the support, the mentoring are so important,” James said. “You can’t shortcut it. If you do, you’re going to have massive turnover.”

The premise of the training was new: Establishing a positive relationship with often-angry parents hadn’t been the priority for most caseworkers, who focused first on the safety of the child.

Reform was a harder sell at the state level, among top administrators far removed from the families being served. But as caseworkers tried it and saw immediate results, they became the bedrock of reform.

In one case, a 23-year-old woman reported herself to the child welfare agency, saying, “My kids keep getting molested,” McClintock recalled. The woman had been systematically abused and prostituted by family members since she was 8 years old. Impoverished, she was still living with her parents.

“She’d get all the kids in her room and put a chair under the doorknob. That’s how she protected them,” McClintock said.

Previously McClintock said she would have only focused on the kids’ safety, with little attention to the mother’s mental health and her potential to become a true protector to her children.

But after her training, McClintock learned to help children by identifying and nurturing their parents’ strengths. The woman’s three children came into foster care temporarily, while a therapist addressed the mother’s trauma through play therapy, usually geared toward children.

“Instead of saying, ‘You’ve let all these men molest your kids,’ she had to learn why she was making these choices,” McClintock said.

Addressing the mother’s trauma was the first step to her gaining her independence. After being reunited with her children, she never had another report to CPS, said McClintock, who periodically checked in with the woman for years and now is director of the Jefferson County Department of Human Resourcs office in Birmingham.

In the Stage 1 Alabama counties, the first to undergo reforms, the number of children in foster care dropped by 40 percent in the first year of reform, according to a 1997 report from the Bazelon Center for Mental Health, one of the plaintiffs in the R.C. lawsuit. Within three years, all converted counties averaged a 20 percent decrease in children in out-of-home care, the report said.

As the court monitor, Groves conducted in-depth case reviews as reforms were implemented, reviewing paper records and interviewing children, parents and all stakeholders involved in the case.

He consistently found that children were safer in “converted” counties — that is, those that were implementing the tenets of the R.C. reforms. Fewer children were coming into out-of-home care, and rates of repeat maltreatment after an abuse or neglect investigation were low, he said.

Despite the success, McClintock resists any notion that Alabama’s child welfare system has “made it.”

“It’s not that we’re fixed,” she said. “We’re not. Every day we have to focus on it.”

ARIZONA COMPARISON

In Arizona, the Department of Child Safety is focusing on its risk-assessment process to train workers to bring children into state care only if necessary and to learn to recognize a family’s strengths.

This year, caseworkers have all been retrained by Action 4 Child Protection, said Theresa Costello, executive director of the nonprofit that works to improve case practice and decision-making. More training is planned this year.

DCS deputy director Mike Faust emphasized that the new training is an “enhancement” to the core training all new hires get. Across the state, more than 40 “safety experts” are available to help field officers implement the training, he said.

But some providers who work with DCS caseworkers say it’s clear some of them aren’t totally comfortable with the new way of doing investigations.

“In terms of training, there’s a lot more that’s needed,” said Suzanne Schunk, vice president of family support services at Southwest Human Development in Phoenix. “They’ve gotten the bare bones.”

Tucson child welfare attorney Thea Gilbert said DCS’s new focus on family strength is laudable, and the effort to train caseworkers to more objectively assess safety is a welcome change from the agency’s historic practice of “remove kids first, ask questions later.”

Gilbert recalled one caseworker who was known as “The Terminator” in child welfare circles because if she were assigned to a case, parental rights were sure to be terminated.

“I admire the attempt to standardize the response, to make it more objective,” Gilbert said. “It used to be ... there was no accountability, there was no predictability of what really met the threshold, because the threshold was completely subjective.”

But Gilbert also worries that if inexperienced and underpaid caseworkers aren’t given robust training and adequate support, children could end up left in unsafe conditions, which could result in a backlash to all of the progressive efforts.

“I anticipate a pendulum swing,” she said.

Contact reporter Emily Bregel at ebregel@tucson.com or 573-4233. On Twitter: @EmilyBregel