The Elephant in the Child Welfare Room

Most people who work in or with child welfare agencies know about the elephant in the (child welfare) room — turnover. Not the breakfast pastry but turnover in the child welfare workforce. We know that this negatively impacts agencies, both financially and in terms of employee morale. It also has a significant impact on the children and families served. A study conducted in Milwaukee’s child welfare system found that families coming into the child welfare system had a 74.5% chance of achieving permanency when they had one worker. This figure plummets to 17.5% with two workers and an alarming .1% if a family has 6 or more workers (which is not that uncommon in child welfare, sadly).

In honor of Child Welfare Professionals Day, I thought I’d share my thoughts on how to address the issue of the elephant in the room. I include some concrete things that could be done to provide immediate relief to the (generally) over-burdened workforce as well as some long-term, macro or systems-level suggestions to ensure the future of the child welfare workforce.  Because every jurisdiction is different, I’ve tried to stick to addressing issues that are applicable in most, although not all, agencies.
Feel free to add your own suggestions!

Top 5 Things To Do Now

1) Create a trauma-informed workplace. There are lots of resources on how to accomplish this-some of which can be found at the National Traumatic Child Stress Network website.

2) Establish a mentoring program . New case workers need support in order to learn to do this incredibly complex work. One way to do this is by providing a mentor who has been successful in their job to help newbies understand and navigate the maze of child welfare policies and practices, court systems, service providers, and paperwork. Of course, this has to be done in a way that does not add to the burden and workload of valued employees.

3) Engage case workers in problem solving. Often agencies conduct an exit interview at some point after employees submit their resignation. The time to have these conversations is before they decide to leave. A note of caution…conducting surveys ≠ engagement. I have seen many managers create more dissatisfaction by attempting to listen to their employees’ concerns without a plan for meaningful engagement.

4) Treat case workers with respect. This one seems like a ‘given’ but over the years it has amazed me how often employees are treated as if they are robots or worse. I’ve witnessed obvious and subtle examples of disrespect. Consider the spectrum of ways that employees might feel less than valued. Publicly pointing out areas for improvement, failure to maintain a professional-looking office space and adequate office supplies, or lack of acknowledgement of successes can build over time and create a negative work environment.
Managers and administrators may send more subtle signals that case workers are not valued and respected. This may be through unrealistic expectations (such as high caseloads) or inadvertently in their language and interactions. I witnessed an example of this when a state child welfare administrator made the comment that, “even a case worker would know that” during a meeting. Needless to say, this did little to bolster the morale in the workplace.

5) Provide meaningful, high quality training/development opportunities. Yes, there are some topics that, no matter how hard one tries, just will not be exciting training topics. After years of sitting through ‘blood-borne pathogens’ training, I know that some topics are necessary but definitely not engaging. However, there are many topics that can be presented in such a way that employees are engaged in the training process and gain valuable information. Enlisting the skills of a professional trainer can be the difference between sitting through training and participating in a learning opportunity. Unfortunately, many agencies have a promotion system that results in those with seniority training the workforce, regardless of their training skills.
Another aspect of development is the opportunity to take part in professional conferences. I remember quite well working in a system where the agency allowed for one person to attend a national conference per year. That is, one person out of thousands of employees could attend a conference not sponsored by their employer. Needless to say, it did little for the collective psyche of the workforce.

Top 5 Things To Do To Change The Course In The Child Welfare Workforce

1) Offer a variety of internship opportunities. I am a firm believer in the value of the internship in identifying and preparing future employees. As a supervisor, I had the good fortune of working with a local college to establish an excellent internship program. (Thank you Briar Cliff University!) The college coordinator truly understood public child welfare and provided exceptional candidates by thoroughly screening and matching students. Most of the interns I supervised eventually came to work at the agency and generally stayed much longer than their peers who had not participated in the process.
Often agencies focus on a social work programs to provide interns in child welfare. Given the limited number of social work programs and the fact that most child welfare staff do not have an educational background in social work, I would suggest that other majors and areas of concentration need to be considered when developing an internship program. Students from educational backgrounds in human services generalist, family life, and child development programs all are recruited into child welfare positions. It makes sense for this to be a source of intern talent.
While the greatest need is often in ongoing case work or child abuse investigations, there are other positions that can be enhanced through an internship program. Special projects, data analysis, or program administration can provide valuable learning experiences for undergraduate and graduate students considering a career in child welfare and identify future leaders in the field.
The other advantage of internship programs is that they can provide valuable opportunities to exchange information about the most effective educational preparation for work in child welfare. Of course, this is best when viewed as a two-way street, with child welfare agencies guiding those in higher education regarding coursework necessary to adequately prepare future employees.

2) Establish (or enhance) dialogues with professional organizations. Local and national professional organizations need to be engaged in the conversation regarding the future workforce. While many public organizations are limited in their ability to lobby on behalf of their employees, professional and membership organizations can effectively advocate at the state and national level for the field of child welfare.

3) Analyze what other professions have done right (and wrong) to address workforce challenges. Many professions have or are still experiencing staffing challenges. Child welfare administrators can learn from their experiences by studying successes and failures to identify potential strategies to improve recruitment and retention efforts. While there have been efforts to study this in the past, they often focus on professions viewed as similar to child welfare.  I would suggest that this needs to go beyond an examination of professions similar to child welfare. I believe there are insights to be gleaned from almost any other field. Manufacturing, railroads, and other industries have experienced some success is addressing workforce challenges.

4) Initiate (or continue) dialogue with higher education administrators. Because most child welfare positions require a complex set of skills and knowledge, it is important to have ongoing conversations with higher education, including community colleges, colleges, and universities. As I have indicated in previous blog posts, I’m not convinced that social work is (or is not) the best training ground for child welfare professionals. I believe it is important to continue the dialogue with persons in higher education regarding the best way to prepare the child welfare workforce.

5) Re-evaluate the workload requirements in child welfare. This is not to be confused with caseloads. Forty years ago, a case worker spent most of their time working directly with children and families. They often worked in neighborhoods, helping families to improve their lives and that of their children, by developing healthy parenting skills. They were often seen as a neighborhood resource, the ‘go-to’ person when a family was in trouble.
Now child welfare workers are often the enemy, vilified by families, the media, and even courts and their own administrators at times. They are responsible for collecting data, and usually inputting that data into complex computer systems. They negotiate service provision with therapists, chemical dependency counselors, landlords, utility companies, and dozens of other professionals. They often are buried under mountains of administrative paperwork and must be ever-aware of changing policies, research, and local practices. They must be knowledgeable, and often experts, in dozens of disciplines in order to provide services to multi-symptomatic children and parents.
Given this state of affairs, a hard look at the realities of the work is long overdue. We must be open to re-evaluating the responsibilities of the job, the possibility of creating new job structures, adding new job functions, creating new categories of child welfare support positions.

Above all, we absolutely MUST do more than talk about turnover. We must DO something about it. I welcome your thoughts on the above and suggestions for other strategies to address the issue of retaining a competent child welfare workforce.

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About ckhayek

I am a Child Welfare Advocate, Data-geek, Writer (and Reader), Cheesecake Baker, and Stunt Kite Flyer .... balance is important! 8-)
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2 Responses to The Elephant in the Child Welfare Room

  1. Kim says:

    Our university cohorts need to be on-board too. I train those straight out of college to do the front line position of intact, permanency and investigations. I have found the population to often be filled with child centered, parent hating people who don’t have a clue about what they are getting in to. The don’t understand the neighborhoods they will be visiting and the type of reception they will receive. We try to make it real in class for them but they don’t seem to think we are serious. The universities need to produce trauma informed, family centered, strength based professionals to fill these positions. I would have never been able to graduate from my college if I had used phrases like “those people” in the classroom.

  2. Susan says:

    Although we work in different countries we appear to have the same style of disenchantment within the workplace. I am a Youth Worker with chidren in out of home care and am in the “frontline”. We have an outside Clinical Psychologist do workshops with all staff once a month working with individual cases. Unfortunately there still appears to be a glitch in the system. Most of our workers that are working one on one with these young people are well trained, have lifeskills associated with the work we do, but there appears to be a big gap between management and the workers. There is the occasional generic thankyou from management when they sense that the youth workers are unhappy but there is a definate order of favouratism, and a style of unfair advantage to those that like to “brown nose”( I can’t think of any other way to put it). Management appears to consist of people that haven’t had the experiences and life changing epiphanies that we on the floor have, and the staff turnover is just terrible. Some times I don’t even get to meet staff before they leave. Management have recently revamped the chain of command, and we’re hoping for a major change in morale, as you can imagine there is little to none of that within the youth workers. And this definately impacts on the young people that we have in our care. We can’t be too sure what the percentages are as yet but new behaviours that are apparent are a good indicator that things are either going right or wrong.

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