Actually, the full headline in the Australian reads, “UK Recruits Desert Child Welfare“. Thus begins the article about Australia’s less than successful efforts to find and retain case workers to handle their staffing-challenged child welfare organization. Generally I focus my attention on child welfare in the U.S., however this caught my attention because I recall efforts by the UK to recruit U.S. child welfare case workers. One headline summarizes that situation with, “UK Shortage of Child Protection Officers Hits Crisis Point“. The word ‘crisis’ seems to suggest a major problem.
Just to recap, the UK seeks U.S. child welfare case workers. Australia seeks UK child welfare case workers. Thus is the circle of workforce recruiting in child welfare. I suspect if I wanted to spend a little time searching, I would find that the international recruitment efforts go beyond these three countries. I vaguely recall some posts recruiting international candidates on LinkedIn a few months back, so I know the problem is not unique.
Of course, the U.S. is not exactly a model of success when it comes to child welfare workforce. I remember starting as a case worker a few years ago (OK, so many years ago….) with a public agency where a case worker with six months experience in the agency was considered an ‘old-timer’. It was unheard of to have case workers start their career with the agency and retire from the agency as a case worker. My colleagues openly discussed their desire to get out of this field or at least get into a setting that would be less stressful. It was not uncommon to see case workers leave the agency to accept lower paying jobs with other organizations or to seek careers in entirely different fields.
The U.S. government has devoted millions of dollars to assist public child welfare agencies with their recruitment challenges. Grants provide universities with stipend programs for child welfare case workers, workforce training centers provide much-needed training for new workers and on-going professional development, both part of a IV-E training network. Dozens of organizations receive federal money to research, evaluate, and disseminate information about recruitment and retention efforts, web-sites are established to share resources, and the federal child welfare review process (CFSR) includes an assessment of child welfare agencies’ ability to address workforce issues as a systemic outcome. And yet, a 2003 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report titled, “HHS Could Play a Greater Role in Helping Child Welfare Agencies Recruit & Retain Staff” outlines concerns that the federal government needs to provide more support to public child welfare agencies experiencing workforce challenges.
Clearly this is a nearly universal problem. I say nearly because I know there are jurisdictions, albeit few, that are able to recruit and retain staff successfully. I can’t help but think of a medical parallel to this….focusing on symptoms rather than looking at the underlying illness. The symptom is child welfare case worker flight. The disease, well, we don’t like to discuss that. I remember the lamenting of a colleague who took over the administration of a beleaguered county office. Her frustration with the dissatisfaction among workers was evident with her bemoaning that she had responded to all of their requests for ‘things’ to improve the workplace and yet they still were not satisfied. In retrospect, I can see that part of the problem was that she was listening to the symptoms of the workplace, but missing the real problem(s). The job itself has become something akin to the life form from the 1958 horror movie, The Blob. People were going to college and being trained to do one thing, only to find that the job was growing uncontrollably into something totally unmanageable.
Do I think this is the only problem facing public child welfare agencies. No. There are many other issues that come into play. For one thing, so few colleges and universities have programs to prepare child welfare workers, that there is no way the supply can keep up with demand. And even those that do have child welfare courses are not always on target as far as the actual day-to-day activities of workers.
Do I have the answer to this problem? Obviously not, or my consultation services would be in such great demand that I could not possibly keep up with the requests. I do have a few ideas however. They are as follows.
- Adequately resource child welfare services. BTW, we aren’t even close now.
- Establish protocols for providing the services that a) are realistic and b) provide career opportunities that are fulfilling. This might mean using career ladder systems (or ‘case assistants’, report writers, whatever), that would handle some of the workload to free up time for case workers to actually work with families.
- Support and engage staff in a meaningful way, to address both internal agency challenges and more global community-wide challenges.
- Mobilize constituents and communities to understand and support the field as a whole.
- Establish career preparation programs that adequately educate persons going into the child welfare field. (I’m sure at some point I’ll be writing more about the best place for this to occur; ie: social work, psychology, health,…..if you haven’t caught my drift, I don’t think the current model is working. Most schools of social work don’t seem particularly interested in child welfare and even if all schools had a child welfare track, there are not nearly enough of them to serve the number of families in need.)
**The last point I would include requires additional thought and maybe a few more brains working on it but I’ll put it out there anyway.**
- Create a work environment that allows case workers to cycle out of direct service work periodically to a) recharge and b) gain a different and/or fresh perspective. For example, after two years on the job, I might have the opportunity to work as a trainer for a year, or work with a data team on analyzing data trends. Obviously, this would be a challenge logistically, but it might lead to some interesting innovations.
I’d welcome any suggestions for my list. Or better yet, maybe we can stop talking around the problem and make substantive efforts to cure the illness rather than treat the symptoms.