Turnover in child welfare case workers has reached troubling proportions. In any profession, an annual turnover rate around 10% is considered healthy. In child welfare social work, the most recent annual turnover rate was reported at exceeding 22% in some states. When we asked child welfare case workers that we communicate with on a regular basis what they think the problem is, the consensus was clear.
- Unmanageable workloads impact the ability of caseworkers to provide adequate services and achieve positive outcomes for children and families. Typical caseloads vary from agency to agency and from state to state, but the average caseload for child welfare workers is around 31 children. As the turnover rate for caseworkers continues to increase, caseworkers left on the job must take up the slack and their caseload increases even more. The profession has slipped into a downward spiral and turnover is becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. Agencies cannot reduce the caseloads that are causing caseworker burnout until they can reduce the turnover rate that the burnout is causing. In other words, the profession is on the horns of a dilemma.
What Caseworkers Are Saying
A lengthy session on Zoom fielding suggestions from caseworkers about how to cure the high turnover rate in child welfare veered from raising pay to cutting back hours to allowing flexible work schedules to more work from home to cutting back on paperwork. In the end, however, they agreed that all these improvements had been tried in one agency or another with little long-term success. The consensus finally reached was that the motivation to continue in social work had to come from within the child welfare caseworkers themselves.
Anyone that went into social work in the first place did not go in it for money. Social workers are a rare breed driven by the desire to help the less fortunate find a better life. The chief mission of the social work profession is to enrich human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with precise attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. Dedicated social workers specialize in behavioral health issues, the criminal justice system, child welfare, hunger, homelessness, mental illness, poverty, old age, medical care, education, and equal opportunity. There is no human vulnerability that some branch of social work does not address. This is a corps of special individuals who seek only to help the less fortunate. The way to reduce turnover in child welfare social work is to reignite the flame that moved the now struggling social worker to take up this "helping" profession in the first place.
Caring for Caregivers
Every child welfare worker on the Zoom call admitted that they needed help. After a little further discussion, they agreed that the following steps would be the most helpful.
- Agency supervision must rethink how they evaluate performance. Most are still stuck on the volume of "cases closed" as the basis of a positive performance evaluation. In other words, just getting paperwork off the supervisor's desk to make room for more paperwork often seemed to be the agency objective.
- Positive outcomes must replace the number of cases closed as the primary agency objective. This would dramatically change the child welfare professional environment and be in sync with the internal motivation of sincere caregivers.
- Peer support groups would go a long way in helping child welfare case workers stay motivated. In fact, once-a-week meetings might not be too much.
- Experienced case workers should function as "mentors" to inexperienced colleagues in a formal relationship arranged by the agency and be paid for their trouble. In fact, most of the caseworkers on the call agreed that, without mentoring, few new case workers will stay the course in the high-pressure environment of today's social services.
The Last Word
After cleaning up the external circumstances of short pay, long hours, unreasonable objectives, and insensitive supervision, child welfare agencies must care for the internal souls of their caregivers. Without going deeper, the turnover rate and overwhelming case load dilemma will never be resolved. Social workers provide critical services to individuals and families across their lifetimes. They provide counsel on imperative life choices and assist individuals and families in reaching their full potential.
Now we must learn to care for them.
Check out what other's are reading on FAMCare's blog: