This month’s Sounding Board discusses responses to a child welfare workload crisis in which high turnover rates have been followed by an increase in unfilled vacancies. This commentary suggests a range of incentives and changes in managerial practices to meet this challenge.
Most (but not all) public child welfare systems have had a high caseworker turnover rate for decades, retention issues that have become worse during recent years. Prior to the pandemic, a news story reported that the annual turnover among Florida’s CPS investigators was 48%. A 2019 news release asserted that Missouri’s child welfare system had an 80% caseworker turnover rate! The story stated that the average salary of Missouri’s child welfare caseworkers in 2019 was $30,000.
These are extremely high turnover rates, but loss of 25-40% of caseworker staff has been common in public agencies for decades. For years, workforce development initiatives focused on increasing retention rates given that the development of child welfare professionals largely depends on experience. MSW programs are valuable, but graduate level education in child welfare is just the first step in developing professional skills and knowledge. I question whether students learn much about child protection in BSW/MSW programs and practicums.
In recent years, a retention challenge in child welfare has morphed into a recruitment challenge. A 2018 story in the Wilkes Journal-Patriot, a newspaper in North Carolina, reported that “Wilkes DSS Director John Blevins said Wilkes DSS is struggling to keep social workers more than two years … and now “just getting them to come through the door” to apply for available jobs is hard.” A consultant who has worked with several state child welfare systems during recent years sent me an email stating:
“ … turnover is high almost everywhere I look … Agencies have trouble hiring and, when they do, new entries often leave before they even finish preservice training, indicating that they didn’t really want the job in the first place … Things stabilized in the middle of the pandemic for obvious reasons, but it was high before and is now going back up.”
Furthermore, (this person adds) modest salary increases have had negligible effect on recruitment. And “I think we have just finally reached the point with low pay and a work environment that is unrewarding on multiple levels (professional development, respect, workload, organizational supports) that this is the best many agencies can do.”
The same challenges with recruitment and retention apply to private agencies as well. The January 27th issue of The Imprint features an article, “Nonprofits in New York City Struggle to Keep Child Welfare Workers.” The story quotes the CEO of a local non-profit: “Somebody comes to us for a couple of months, we do the whole hiring thing. Day two, they don’t show up … It is really the kind of behavior I’ve never seen before.” The story states that the average salary of a private agency caseworker in New York City is $41,000, about $20,000 less than public agency caseworkers’ salaries. In New York City, an annual salary of $41,000 is a poverty level wage. Private agencies could once fill vacant positions that paid low paraprofessional salaries; but not now when other organizations have job openings that pay 50% higher salaries.
Private agencies in Washington state are having the same difficulty in finding qualified applicants for mental health therapists who deliver evidence-based programs, according to DCYF program managers.
A public or private agency’s vacancy rate in key positions has become as important as the agency’s turnover rate. Maryland’s Department of Human Services has had 250 positions vacant for more than a year, and currently has a vacancy rate of 15%, “an all-time high,” according to a recent story in Maryland Matters. A high vacancy rate is likely to increase an agency’s turnover rate as the inability to replace staff adds to workload pressures which may already be intolerable with all positions filled. It is the combination of high turnover with an increase in vacancy rates that has created a sense of desperation among child welfare managers. This situation cannot continue, yet child welfare agencies are not as “nimble” and adaptive as corporations and organizations that do not depend on public funding when faced with recruitment challenges.
The Mismanagement of Child Welfare
High turnover and recruitment difficulties are only partly due to low salaries in state and county-run child welfare systems. Child welfare agencies have been mismanaged for decades through top/down compliance focused bureaucracies that steadily add to policy and procedural requirements regardless of inadequate staffing resources. The abilities of managers vary widely, but dysfunctional management practices are universal in public agencies. A bureaucratic paradigm views caseworkers and supervisors as tools whose views regarding practice and policy are irrelevant. Initiative at the unit and office level may be punished, and there is limited investment in professional development. There are no workload standards in many agencies, or the standards are aspirational, and often ignored. Child welfare systems utilize superficial performance indicators that can be (and are) gamed to evaluate office and unit performance. These metrics ignore caseworkers’ abilities to develop and sustain positive relationships with children, parents, foster parents, community professionals and the legal system.
The emphasis “on looking good (on metrics) rather than being good” has led to widespread bullying of caseworkers in Oregon and (to some extent) in Washington. Some middle managers have discovered they can pressure caseworkers to improve on performance indicators with impunity regardless of workload pressures; and can terminate a caseworker’s employment when they resist unreasonable demands.
This is a deplorable organizational culture that the pandemic has worsened in two main ways:
- child welfare staff have had to work out of their homes for extended periods of time, a practice that has undermined the social support required to emotionally survive in dangerous, challenging jobs. Too many child welfare managers seem unaware that the loss of offices and daily contact among unit members has left inexperienced staff in an emotionally untenable position.
- the inability or stubborn refusal to develop adequate placement resources for high needs youth as residential care facilities close their doors has led to an increase in office and hotel placements in many states (including states in federal region 10), placements that inexperienced and/or poorly trained staff are expected to supervise. These are dangerous, demoralizing and ethically questionable assignments, which newly hired caseworkers did not sign on for and may lack the skills and emotional readiness to perform competently. Why would any caseworker required to supervise hotel placements, or drive children hundreds of miles in the dead of night to facilities in other parts of the state during their first year of employment, plan on a career in child welfare?
The insistence that there has always been a workforce crisis in child welfare like the current one is false. Child welfare jobs have steadily become less tolerable due to ever increasing prescriptive requirements and chronic staffing shortages. Recruitment difficulties increased during the second year of the pandemic due to the great resignation and social isolation of staff, and by the self-inflicted wound of undermining residential care programs without developing practical alternatives. In the current environment, onerous Family First regulations designed to reduce use of congregate care have acted like an anchor tied to a sinking ship! Some child welfare systems teetering for years on the edge of a precipice have gone into free fall. Their managers are understandably desperate for a quick fix, e.g., hiring bonuses, a strategy likely to lead to anger and resentment among experienced staff.
Can Incentives Work?
Incentives can have a large immediate effect on recruitment and retention if they are large, creative and remove disincentives to employment. However, child welfare directors tend to propose modest incentives they believe are politically acceptable rather than what’s needed. The director of Idaho’s child welfare system has proposed a 7% salary increase for agency staff, a raise in line with inflation, and requested 21 additional positions in an agency that already has 30 vacancies. The director also announced recently that the child welfare agency has received permission to give caseworkers overtime pay rather than comp time which they often cannot use due to workload pressures, an admission that Idaho’s child welfare system has been exploiting caseworkers for years by refusing to pay them for overtime.
Compare these underwhelming incentives to the following:
- Increase salaries by 25% over 4 years.
- Subsidize the cost of child-care for pre-K children of agency staff.
- Implement a student loan forgiveness program which pays 20% of student loan debt per year for 5 years, with a lid of $50,000.
- Pay the cost of comp time accrued during the past decade.
Several other incentives could have a large effect on recruitment and retention:
- Fund job relevant certification programs in substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence, cultural competence, child development, and/or trauma informed care. Upon completion of the certification program, increase a caseworker’s salary by 5%.
- Assign an experienced caseworker mentor to each newly hired caseworkers for 6 months; pay mentors $300-400 per month for their mentoring role.
- Provide 90-day education sabbaticals to caseworkers and supervisors who have worked 4 continuous years in their position.
- Develop at least two Research and Development sites in which high performing units are brought together with academic researchers and private agency therapists to develop (and test) model practices and programs.
- In Washington state, create an annual budget of $750,000 to fund two innovative projects per region developed by DCYF offices and units. Hold a “Best Ideas” conference each year to highlight notable achievements and spread promising practices.
These ideas may seem unrealistic to child advocates and child welfare managers who have scaled back their expectations and suppressed their imaginations to maintain positive relationships with policymakers. Reimagining child welfare must include permission to envision organizations that operate outside current boundaries. It is next to impossible to create better agencies when child welfare leaders are afraid to imagine – much less discuss – different approaches to supporting their workforce for fear of upsetting policymakers who want reform to stay within strictly confined limits.
Negative Word of Mouth Will Defeat Incentives
Large creative incentives can have an immediate effect on recruitment, but these gains cannot be sustained in the face of widespread negative word of mouth regarding organizational practices from experienced staff. I received the following email two years ago from a child welfare professional with decades of experience who has had contact with many agencies in other parts of the U.S.
“In answer to your question why anyone would want this job, I can think of only two reasons: (1) they are misinformed: (2) they can’t get another job. I loved working in child welfare, but it was a different era … I hope that I try very hard to be supportive and encouraging to the staff I encounter in agencies now, but I have to admit that I would attempt to dissuade any young person I love from going into the work.”
I have heard this same message from many retired child welfare staff and from current employees of child welfare agencies. This is not just disgruntled talk. I have worked in or with child welfare agencies since the early 1970’s. I can count the number of children of friends and acquaintances with a child welfare background who have pursued a child welfare career on one hand; and the parents of these children were not especially happy about their child’s employment in child welfare.
Foster parent recruitment campaigns have rarely been effective, in part because prospective applicants have often heard negative views regarding working with public agencies from experienced foster parents. It is not strictly true that successful recruitment depends on retention. Rather, recruitment depends on retention of experienced staff who have pride in their profession and positive views of the organization that employs them. Why would a young person with multiple job opportunities pursue a child welfare career if they have been warned against doing so by veteran child welfare staff? No incentive or corporate style PR can overcome negative word of mouth from persons in a position to know.
How to Create Positive Word of Mouth in Child Welfare Agencies
Child welfare leaders, with the support of policymakers should make the following commitments to their staff and to applicants for child welfare positions:
- “ This agency will be managed to workload standards that employ lids rather than averages. Any caseworker whose caseload or number of newly assigned investigations exceeds workload standards for longer than 60 days will be compensated for the additional work-related stress.”
- “Supervisors and middle managers will have the discretion to waive specific policies and procedures when case assignments exceed standards by x percent.”
- “You will be financially compensated for overtime.”
- “You will have opportunities for professional development, including certification programs which, upon completion, will lead to an increase in salary.“
- “You will be expected to study your profession and demonstrate the acquisition of professional skills and knowledge. You will have the opportunity to develop specialized expertise in an area of practice that interests you.”
- “Policy and procedural requirements will be significantly reduced. After two years, you will be eligible for the status of “child welfare professional,” at which point you will be supervised differently than newly hired staff.”
- “You will have a voice in the development of agency policy and practice.”
- “Personal initiative on behalf of the agency mission will be encouraged and rewarded. “
- “You will be assigned an experienced paid mentor for the first 6 months of employment.”
- “You will be held accountable to reasonable expectations, but you will not be bullied, and you will not be punished by this agency for conscientious decisions/actions that turn out badly.”
- “You will receive administrative support and case aide assistance.”
- “You will be evaluated (in part) on your ability to develop and sustain positive relationships with foster parents, community professionals, parents and children on your caseload. Positive relationships do not imply absence of conflict, rather you will be expected to be able to repair relationships affected by conflict.”
- “You will be part of a cohesive unit that meets weekly (at the very least), and you will be expected to contribute to unit teamwork.”
- “You will be part of a learning organization that seeks to learn from mistakes, and whose staff can tolerate and benefit from critical questions, both internally and in the community.”
- “Your excellent work will be recognized and rewarded.”
- “You will be expected to acknowledge and correct mistakes, and you will be expected to adhere to high ethical standards.”
Child welfare agencies have developed organizational cultures that undermine initiative, professionalism, and pride in profession. Recruitment and retention initiatives cannot be successful without dramatic changes in organizational culture focused on workforce development and support. The best indicator that urgently needed changes have occurred will be positive word of mouth regarding organizational support from experienced staff, and renewed pride in profession.
- Gaskill, H., “Human Services Staffing Shortages Is at An All-Time High,” Maryland Matters, Feb. 3, 2022.
- Hubbard, J., “DSS social workers hard to find, keep,” Wilkes Journal Patriot , June 26, 2018.
- Hunt, M., “Nonprofits in New York City Struggle to Keep Child Welfare Workers,” The Imprint, Jan. 27, 2022.
- Mosley-Morris, K., “Idaho Health and Welfare asks for 21 additional social workers, makes overtime changes,” Idaho Capital Sun, Jan. 31, 2022.
- Nelson, A., “ Missouri’s Children’s Division continues to grapple with 80% turnover rate,” OzarksFirst.com, posted Oct. 22, 2019.
- Powers, S., “State struggling with high turnover of child protection investigators,” Florida Politics, Dec. 12, 2019.
Past Sounding Board commentaries can be found at www.deewilsoncon.com.