Supervision is the heartbeat of a child welfare agency and in many places, it is on life support. It used to be one of the strongest pillars of our profession, but in recent years the supervisory role has found itself looking for a clear purpose or relevance to our goals of improvement and transformation.
This should be dismaying to all, because a cadre of highly competent supervisors might be part of the secret sauce that helps organizations attract and retain experienced team members, as well as promising young social workers and non-traditional employees. Money and mission-driven cultures also contribute to team stability but motivating those team members on a daily basis is best done by their supervisors.
Currently, agencies are concentrating their efforts on finding frontline personnel because cases are stacking up and their mandated responses are slowing down. It is worth considering how a few well-placed supervisors can add to the richness and stability of an agency’s culture, while supporting our systems change efforts.
No matter where I visit in the country, public and private agencies are concerned, in some cases panicked, about the issue of staff recruitment and turnover. I caution my peers to be skeptical of any one formula for addressing this, especially while they are in a near meltdown situation. Learning from others is smart but avoid trying to replicate.
For agencies that are in a systemic improvement or transformation process, looking to become more family friendly and community connected, I suggest they think of this staffing shortage as an opportunity for hiring differently. Why keep hiring as if this were a couple of decades ago?
Shouldn’t we be recruiting and training people with the right combination of skills who can simultaneously balance child safety and family engagement, relationship building and well-being? Let’s add in leadership and management skills, as well as the ability to foster innovation and collaboration among the direct service partners.
Child welfare shouldn’t be a linear process, and we won’t achieve our goals through the assignment of partialized tasks. This is when agency administration needs to be bold in its hiring, and where competent, seasoned supervisors can make the difference in setting the course for agency and staff renewal.
In the latter half of the 1970s, I spent a great deal of my time in my supervisor’s office. Juggling my job and part-time graduate studies, supervision was the combination of lessons learned, mentoring, counseling, social justice cheerleading and the spot to share agency information, and even a little gossip. It’s where agency culture was reinforced. Every session was the equivalent of an annual performance review.
Objectively speaking, my job as a pup social worker was marginal, with unreasonably low pay and complex family situations. But when I was sitting in that room with my supervisor, she fired me up and made me feel as if I was part of the agency’s greater purpose.
This is not a nostalgic ramble down child welfare memory lane. Much has changed over the years and the landscape has shifted. First off, supervision is taking place within a different context: less child rescue and more family support and preservation. Our work, and the requirements for becoming a supervisor, are drastically different, shaped in many ways by the shortage of personnel. We have technology, brain science and a better idea of how poverty and racial biases matter in the lives of families we serve.
At the same time, the current role of supervisors has downshifted into one of compliance with our countless, self-imposed federal, state and local metrics — or requirements that court settlements have wrought. Many supervisors today juggle all of those required tasks and still find time to be caring, compassionate and highly supportive of their team members. But as our staff vacancy rates grow higher, middle management is stretched beyond its capacity.
This could be the place to test the adage that every crisis contains an opportunity. As child welfare agencies are considering comprehensive, transformational changes, supervisors can help to integrate agency improvements and innovations. They can be the connectors of management to families and community stakeholders and frontline team members. They can be keepers of the renewed values and vision, channels for improved relationships, as well as advocates for internal and external change. And because change brings an inevitable level of discomfort to many employees, they can lead with emotional intelligence and empathy, thus stabilizing the workforce.
I have suggested to some agencies that a re-imagined role for seasoned supervisors is critical in the redesign of who they hire to engage and support families. I ask how can their agency, looking to employ more people with lived experiences, or individuals with less than a four-year degree, utilize the skills of senior supervisors as mentors and shepherds of organizational redesign?
A 21st century approach to child safety, family well-being and community outreach requires a variety of supportive partners. If we take our systems change rhetoric seriously, and we anticipate that frontline practice will evolve, shouldn’t we enhance our expectations for supervision as well?
The sad reality is that we are not going to get out of the current workforce crisis with hiring incentives alone. The reasons for that are too numerous to list here. But we can reorient new roles and responsibilities for agency teams, led by creative, self-directed supervisors who are critical thinkers, and who should be right in the middle of our transformation efforts.