A woman in a suit arguing with a judge in robes outside a courtroom. Image by ekaterina-bolovtsova from Pexels is licensed under Pexels license.

Both child welfare social workers and juvenile probation agents work in systems where time is scarce and caseloads can be overwhelming. Catherine Sirois observed this reality among social workers and probation agents by observing court hearings where youth did not neatly fit within either the child welfare or juvenile justice systems.

Sirois observed juvenile court hearings, interviewed court and social service workers, and attended governmental committee meetings to understand how young people ended up being the responsibility of child welfare or juvenile justice. She found that both agencies attempted “institutional offloading” during court hearings. That is, they tried to place the children, who required the most time and effort due to mental or behavioral challenges, in the other agency and not their own.

This deflection, Sirois explains, is not caused by social workers or probation officers being lazy, but because of the reality of scarce resources. For example, a social worker may have an overbooked caseload which means they can only serve a certain number of time-intensive youths. As a result, when they get to court, such social workers may attempt to remove some of these youths from their caseload — freeing up their time for other, less time-intensive youths.

Because this institutional offloading often occurs in court, where children and adolescents can hear and see their social worker or probation agent attempt to drop them as a client, this can make them feel unwanted, abandoned, and unloved. This institutional abandonment coupled with family histories of neglect and abandonment can increase the likelihood that youth will need even more interventions. 

Sociological research like Sirois’ study sheds light on the paradox of institutional offloading in child welfare and juvenile justice systems. While it may be easy to blame individual probation officers and social workers for turning youth away, this research shows how limited resources can pressure well-meaning social workers and probation agents to drop the children who are most in need of services.