Christopher Cassels uses a surfing analogy to describe working in the child welfare system.
“You have to have some talent to get out there in the waves,” says Cassels, who is the social services supervisor of Child Welfare Services for Solano County. “But there is also a spot on the wave where you can harness the power and not get clobbered. It is the same in child welfare work. You need to be adept, but you also need to position yourself to be effective.”
As a supervisor in a county suffering from severe budget cuts, finding that sweet spot has grown increasingly difficult. Cassels now monitors four caseworkers responsible for 110 kids and has roles in several new county initiatives. Solano County also recently laid off all entry-level social services workers, limiting drastically the ability of Cassels’ team to offer things such as transportation to visitations for parents.
“State regulations say we are to visit with the kids once a month,” says Cassels. “But caseworkers need enough time to connect with the kids, not just gawk at them. According to the law, those visits are intended to ‘establish a point of stability,’ to create a continuity for the foster kids they may not get elsewhere. So one of our priorities is to try to keep the same social worker on the same case; it is clear, too, that is what the kids want.”
The legalities of child welfare and the philosophy behind his work are two things Cassels discovered while at the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare. But he had originally applied to the university for less intellectual reasons.
“I thought I would go back to school to get paid better,” says Cassels. “‘What can they really teach me?’ I thought. But the experience humbled me – I learned more than I could ever imagine.”
At Berkeley, Cassels found the school philosophy supported his focus on public service. “It was a look at what public service means,” says Cassels. “For me, part of what is so satisfying in this work is that it is public service. It is helping people make connections and serving the disenfranchised.”
Cassels was in the first cohort of graduates from the Title IV-E program at Berkeley, which specifically focused on training students to work in public child welfare agencies.
“I truly like the kids and the parents I work with,” says Cassels. “I have a genuine appreciation for them and their struggle.”