High staff turnover continues to plague child welfare agencies across the nation, leading to lost capacity as agencies face increased demand for their services from a growing number of struggling families.
It’s an old problem that demands a new way of thinking to solve and requires accepting the reality that there are not enough professional staff in the pipeline — either in college preparing for a social service career or currently in the workforce — to complete the work that needs to be done. Fortunately, hope is not lost and there are concrete steps that agencies can take now to help fix the system.
The national average turnover rate for child welfare workers is estimated to be between 23% and 60% annually across private and public child welfare agencies. There are a variety of factors contributing to the turnover, including low compensation, high stress, unmanageable case load sizes, out of balance work/life realities, and inadequate supervision — conditions that virtually guarantee staff won’t return unless meaningful changes are implemented.
Agencies are trying to fill those vacant positions, but with a very limited pool of applicants from which to choose, it is increasingly difficult. In the meantime, the remaining staff — many of whom are less experienced — are absorbing the work of their departing co-workers. In fact, the average number of years’ experience of a child welfare worker is less than two years.
Child welfare cases are complex, multi-dimensional, and emotional, with a zero-mistake tolerance level by the public. It often takes an experienced child welfare worker to navigate family dynamics and avoid the administrative traps to ensure the safety and well-being of young children — either by providing the support parents need to provide a safe, stable and loving environment or intervening to protect the child from harm.
Achieving those objectives, however, is becoming more difficult and onerous for agencies. High staff turnover drains an agency’s capacity to efficiently and thoroughly handle current caseloads. While we need to acknowledge that the system’s foundational staffing and operations practices are fundamentally out of date, that begs the question — how do we build capacity without staff and where do we go from here?
Thankfully, there are several measures agencies can implement to reinforce their foundations.
Matching available skill sets to available caseloads: Agencies should align their child welfare practice model to the realities of available workforce by trying new approaches, such as matching skill to task where a non-degreed case aide supports caseworkers in an administrative capacity, or by taking a team approach to cases.
Visualizing agency workflow: We need a new approach to make the child welfare system more resilient; by doing so, we can more deeply understand where and why we are losing capacity. A good place to begin is by mapping all current agency processes along the child welfare continuum. Creating a visualization helps to better inform what is happening in real time at all stages.
Given there are only 40 hours in a week to work, we need to rethink the realities of work distribution and demands. More complex cases should be given the appropriate time needed for resolution. Similarly, more straightforward cases should be processed in a way that minimizes unnecessary staff intervention or extra time spent. Mapping is all about quantifying the emotion of business, then developing a detailed plan to redesign it toward resolution — and a process visualization can help illustrate current flaws in operation.
Mapping process and centralizing data: Agencies should then follow a mapping process for ideal case processing — creating flow charts that outline the current reality of cases against the ultimate desired process. Employing this approach enables agencies to see why cases are flowing beyond mandated caseload numbers.
Furthermore, it’s not enough to capture data.Agencies must work to make that data smarter. That means organizing and analyzing raw information to glean actionable steps — data-driven decision making. Accurate, real-time data is critical to operational success. State and county human services directors, secretaries, or commissioners who are responsible for child welfare should have the tools to know where every child or case is in their system at all times. If any children are “stuck” or not progressing, cases should be escalated and senior staff alerted to know exactly whom to speak with to reach a resolution. Putting data at the core of agency operations can become key to informing continuous quality improvements of practice.
Establishing case workflow and automation: Child welfare cases tend to fall into one of three risk categories: high, medium, or low. And while it would seem lower-risk cases would require less work, the reality is most work models dictate the same number of face-to-face visits each month, as well as frequency of face-to-face supervision regardless of risk category. We strongly encourage systems to reexamine their case maintenance protocols to align worker and supervisor activities to the individual needs of the case rather than applying a broad, one-size fits all approach.
With the unfortunate truth of a limited workforce, technology can help us automate as many non-essential human interaction tasks as possible. There are multiple ways that automation is being utilized to generate capacity, including delivering real-time data reports so leadership can know the status of each case that is open in their system. Automation can also reduce administrative burdens by allowing easier submission of documents such as court reports and benefit applications.
The challenges facing our child welfare system are not new, but they are reaching a tipping point. High turnover rates and a shrinking workforce are straining an old system. It’s time to stop spinning our wheels by factoring these challenges in as we drive towards strengthening the foundational system of child welfare agencies.