How Caseworkers Advocate for Human-Centered Services

Three Code for America staff members share how their experiences in direct service influence the way they show up at work today

A lot of hands touch each product and service that gets built at Code for America. From client research to marketing, everything we create goes through a collaborative process full of feedback loops, iteration, and countless Zoom meetings. We want to hone in on one particular part of our work today: how our staff who have been direct service workers bring their lived experience to their work at Code for America. 

Caseworkers and other people working in direct service provide critical support to the government systems Code for America works on. They’re the people processing applications for food benefits, providing support to people interacting with the criminal justice system, and getting families connected to things like supportive housing and education services. In short, they’re the people who guide individuals through their interactions with government services.

Recently, we sat down with three of our staff members. Alia Toran-Burrell (she/her) is the Program Director of Clear My Record, and before that worked as a case manager in a public defender’s office in New York and did direct crisis intervention as the manager of a jail diversion program in Boston. Ashley “Tez” Cortez (they/she) is a Staff Service Designer, and before that worked as a case manager for a behavioral health system and in a sexual violence center in Florida. Elena Fortuna (she/her) is the Senior Director of Client Success, and before that was a social worker and program manager in a variety of child and family welfare systems throughout California. 

We asked them a few questions to learn more about how these direct service experiences inform their work now, help them see things from the client’s point of view, and ensure they’re always putting empathy front and center as they devise solutions.

How did your work in direct service set you on a path to joining civic tech?

Ashley “Tez” Cortez: I started my career in case management for a behavioral health system in rural Florida, where I was doing a lot of work connecting children and families to things like medical services, after-school activities, things like that. And then, when I went to work at the sexual violence center, I did a lot of direct response to all kinds of violence. It meant going to hospitals, crime scenes, houses, wherever it would be—it might be 3 a.m., and I was meeting with a family or individual who’d lost everything very quickly. It became a question of “How do we get them access to safe housing, food, healthcare, childcare—all at once?” Doing that kind of crisis response really made me see the lack of resources available to people in those situations. I saw the system was really broken. I wondered what would happen if I went upstream and tried to tackle some of these big problems on a systemic level. 

Alia Toran-Burrell: That first job I had at the public defender’s office made me go down the path that I’m on now. I was working in juvenile court, and part of my job was to do an intake with the kids to make sure they were aware of what was happening. And sometimes the kids would have been held overnight and then taken to this windowless room in the courthouse, they haven’t slept. It’s a really, really dark scene. Nothing had prepared me for how deeply horrible the criminal legal system was until I saw it directly. I remember meeting this one kid who was probably eleven years old and thinking, “This kid is amazing to have survived what he’s been through. And this experience is going to impact his entire life.” I hoped that my interaction with him in that one moment would make it a little bit easier for him to navigate the next couple of days, weeks, months. But there’s millions of kids like him. I didn’t know what the broader system change would look like at that point, but that job was the first time I thought something big needs to change. And then jump forward 15 years, and here I am at Code for America being able to work on the laws we’re passing that will impact millions of people. It feels like a full circle moment.

What are some throughlines you’ve noticed from the time you spent in direct service to the experience of caseworkers you’re working with now?

Elena Fortuna: In our client success endeavors, our interactions with caseworkers are constant, especially in our collaborations with Minnesota and New Mexico. I’m still hearing these stories firsthand, which sound much like my experience. When I was doing direct service, there were these really heavy workloads. Just huge amounts of clients. Managing such a workload was immensely challenging given the constraints of time. And like Alia and Tez have been talking about, there’s so much emotional stress, and as a caseworker, you feel this pressure, you know what you’re doing will impact the rest of their lives. There’s an innate desire to provide each family with the utmost care, attention, and support while navigating systems fraught with systemic issues such as oppression, racism, and bias. Whether in my past role or in the present, the reality remains the same: caseworkers are grappling with immense pressures that lead to burnout, stress, and feelings of isolation.

What are some things we should be listening to caseworkers about?

Tez: Something that influences a lot of my work is how much, when I was a caseworker, I wanted to be in the rooms where decisions were made. I had the greatest understanding of the work and what the processes were, how we were collecting data, what we were doing, what was meaningful to us. When we think about designers developing tools, resources, or process—that’s the work caseworkers do in their day to day. Caseworkers will be the quickest to understand the shortcuts and the mental models and anything to make their lives simpler—they’re often living in poverty themselves and they’re still holding the system together. 

Elena: It’s evident that caseworkers face significant trauma in their daily work. While it’s crucial to prioritize resources for families dependent on these systems, it’s equally vital to address the lack of support for caseworkers themselves. Throughout my career, I’ve been deeply disappointed by the insufficient resources allocated to direct service providers.

Alia: I completely agree. It does not help people if caseworkers are not fully supported to do their jobs. And at the same time the skills caseworkers can bring—developing relationships, empathic communication, strong advocacy—are all so important and rewarding, especially when it leads to people getting what they need. These are skills that are underrated and wildly underpaid. How can we start valuing and mirroring these skills the way we value other skills people bring to their jobs?

How often do you use skills you built as a caseworker in your job today?

Tez: I couldn’t do my job as a service designer had I not been a caseworker. A caseworker is in there understanding the policy, the rules, the things that govern the process of what they’re going through—that’s what a service designer is supposed to do. You’re supposed to look across client experience: the policies that govern it, the databases that might be a part of it, the systems that you are working in. It’s given me the ability to look across like multiple modalities and then pull the thing that says, “If we move this, this will be the thing that will alleviate the most pain.” I’ve been working in ex parte for the past two years, which is about automatic healthcare renewal—getting your Medicaid renewal completed seamlessly. We were wondering what we wanted to do to improve the Medicaid experience, and we asked: Do we want to do text messaging? Do we want to do a document uploader? And we saw that in this case, no, there’s a process we could build that could just alleviate all of this. We should go after that. And it’s been enormously successful.

Elena: I echo Tez’s sentiment that my journey wouldn’t have been possible without direct practice. Even at Code for America, my team that interfaces directly with clients is not immune to burnout, stress, and vicarious trauma. In response, I’ve been advocating for a human-centered approach within our staff. Recently, we introduced reflective supervision, a concept I borrowed from my background as a therapist. This peer-to-peer supervision model has been invaluable. Most of our staff members are now certified in it. It provides a supportive space for debriefing and fosters partnerships during challenging moments.

Alia: My work in programs is focused on forming strong strategic partnerships with the states we work with. I wouldn’t be able to do that effectively without my time in direct service. It helped me build so many relationship skills that I’m still using every day to form partnerships that are solid, trusting, and effective.

How can we elevate the voices of caseworkers more?

Tez: In a previous project I worked on, we did a pilot where caseworkers were doing a brand new process and then taking action on a case, and we asked the policy experts at the state sit in on those pilot moments. So then, when big questions came up for caseworkers, policy experts could answer directly. Doing this then supported the creation of rigorous guidelines for the new process. I think more projects like that, where caseworkers are directly interacting with policymakers and asking nuanced questions about how operations meets policy, could really help.

Elena: To truly amplify the voices of caseworkers and frontline workers, both within Code for America and in broader contexts, we must begin by recognizing and affirming their invaluable expertise. Regrettably, society often categorizes these essential skills as “soft skills,” leading to their undervaluation. This is a perception we can challenge and reshape. At Code for America, we actively collaborate with caseworkers, engaging in surveys, feedback loops, and sessions alongside them.

Reflecting on my own experience as a caseworker, I recall participating in numerous working groups where insightful solutions were proposed but were not implemented. It’s evident that we must establish a new standard—one that truly values the contributions of caseworkers and prioritizes action driven by the insights of those closest to the work: the clients and caseworkers themselves.

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