Case workers and perverse incentives

A reader writes regarding our post on the perverse incentives given social workers:

Frankly, I’m surprised this story is news. The belief of every case worker I know (I’ve only been at this since July) is that if a kid on your caseload dies, the odds are that you’ll be fired no matter what you did right or wrong. Besides the perverse incentives you mentioned, that cause over-removal of children at lower levels, there are perverse incentives for the people at the top of the chain–if they make the requirements so unattainable they can never be done perfectly, and keep caseloads high enough that no one can complete all his tasks, there will always be something they can find that caseworkers didn’t do, and the caseworkers (and sometimes their immediate supervisors) can be fired.

One of the greatest needs I’ve seen for a loser-pays system has been this year in my work with county dependency courts. The Child Protective Investigators, who remove children and work with the state AG’s office to get them adjudicated dependent on the state, prosecute the most absurd cases because it hardly costs them anything if they lose.

Right now I’m working with a CPI who is trying to take custody of a 17-year-old girl from her mother–even though by the time the trial comes around and the girl is adjudicated (probably won’t be, because the CPI has a crappy case against her) she’ll be one month away from aging out of the system. Since the CPIs don’t pay if they lose, and don’t even usually show up at trial to get chewed out by the judge, they have no reason not to waste my time, the judges’ time, the attorneys’ time, and (worst of all, since these poor folks aren’t paid to be there) a phenomenal amount of innocent parents’ time and money.

The single biggest problem with the dependency system, at least here in Florida, is that we don’t have loser-pays.

Sorry for the rant. That post hit close to home!

On a similar point: see Illinois Alliance for Parents & Children, whose website isn’t quite finished.


  • An article in today’s Examiner describes a DC government report that has found that of the 157 deaths of children and youths under 21 in DC in 2006, 59 had been cited to child welfare agencies for abuse or neglect. Whatever the faults of the DC child-welfare system, it’s not immediately apparent that excessive zeal is one of them.

  • […] a grand jury; four social workers were also charged with felony endangerment, which will no doubt screw up incentives further for over-reacting child protective services […]