In her five years at the Rubin Home for Boys in Troy, New York, Shelby Quintal has seen countless social workers and childcare staff come and go.
It’s surprising, she mused, that she has stayed this long. As a senior clinician now, Quintal said she often works well past her weekly 40 hours, essentially doing two jobs and getting paid for one. Her duties include counseling children and parents, and case management — scheduling court appointments, supervising family visits, coaching foster youth and coordinating after-care plans for when they age out. To supplement her income, Quintal, 30, also has a part-time job with the agency that owns the group home, Vanderheyden, providing behavioral health services to foster youth in the surrounding upstate community.
But it’s often still not enough to support her two children, ages 9 and 5, she said. After the pandemic, her rent on an apartment in Watervliet, a city just outside of Troy, nearly doubled. And although she holds a master’s degree in her field, she has repeatedly had to move in with friends to keep her kids housed.
“This is the same story that I hear from everybody,” Quintal said.
A new compensation report on the New York workforce that cares for children and families through private agencies underscores the urgency. The nonprofit Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, which produced the report, has collected data on staff turnover and employee shortages from 58 private, nonprofit child welfare agencies across New York State for the past 11 years. This year, “it’s definitely at crisis levels,” said report author Katie Hanna.
According to a summary of the report released Aug. 1, turnover rates have risen sharply in the last two years. Last year, 42% of caseworkers left their jobs, double the 2020 figure. Front-line child care staff in 24-hour residential care facilities, who work directly with foster youth providing meals and facilitating activities and medical appointments, had the highest turnover among the roughly 5,500 employees surveyed by the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies — almost 57%. Those positions also had the highest vacancy rate, at almost 20%.
Feeding the shortages are low wages. The report found that the average starting salary for a child care worker in New York was roughly $39,000, including in New York City, where there is a much higher cost of living than in the rest of the state. Salary bumps for employees who had invested in master’s degrees earned them only a 6% overall rise.
Kathleen Brady-Stepien, president and CEO of the council that produced the workforce report, called the landscape “completely unacceptable” — not just for the dissatisfied staff but for the clients they serve: traumatized children experiencing ever-changing caregivers in foster care, and relatives battling to rebuild their families against great odds of poverty, domestic violence and substance abuse. A revolving series of child welfare caseworkers only deepens mistrust and can delay family reunification, experts say.
“Research in the field shows that every time a worker turns over, it can add up to six additional months to a child’s time in foster care,” Brady-Stepien said.
Quintal said she has seen staff turnover hinder the ability of some foster youth to form stable, healthy relationships later in life, professionally or personally.
“They’re struggling with homelessness and unemployment because they just don’t know how to have a conversation,” Quintal said. “The turnover rate directly impacts their ability to build a relationship with somebody and to work on the skills that they need for life.”
“The challenges facing our child welfare system are not new, but they are reaching a tipping point.”— KELLY HARDER, Change & Innovation Agency
Since the pandemic, worker shortages have become endemic to many sectors of society — with 1.9 million fewer Americans working today, compared to February 2020, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And although human service employees received a cost-of-living raise in the recently passed New York state budget, they still remain too poorly compensated for the demanding and stressful work they perform, say leaders of agencies reliant on public funding. That leads to burnout and resignation, and makes vacant jobs difficult to fill.
As a result, qualified employees working for nonprofit agencies often leave for unionized government jobs, such as those offered by the New York City Administration for Children’s Services. At that city agency, annual salaries for a typical caseworker after five years of employment is almost $66,000. In contrast, Quintal, with the same amount of experience, earns $61,000 a year.
“In New York City, one of the biggest competitors has always been the city or the state for salaries that they have,” said Reina Batrony, vice president of community-based and education strategies at The New York Foundling, one of the city’s oldest child welfare agencies. “Their salary bracket is higher than what we can provide as an agency.”
Some foster care agencies have tried to boost salaries by doubling down on private fundraising efforts. They’ve also attempted to make the jobs more appealing by offering hybrid work, and partnering with local colleges and universities to provide higher education pathways.
“RESEARCH in the field shows that every time a worker turns over, it can add up to six additional months to a child’s time in foster care.”— Kathleen Brady-Stepien, Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies
In a statement emailed to The Imprint, Jess Dannhauser, commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services, said his agency is “grateful to the committed child welfare and juvenile justice staff who serve children, youth, and families with care and compassion.”
He noted that New York City “has taken steps to better support the child welfare provider workforce,” through its Foster Care Workforce Enhancement and Provider Agency Scholarship Program, which allows family-serving employees to obtain social work master’s degrees “to further their child welfare and juvenile justice careers.”
Dannhauser said the recent workforce data released by the community-based agencies “reinforces how important steps like these are needed throughout New York State.”
But without enough funding for salaries, these measures may not be enough, said Mary Jane Dessables, who authored nine workforce reports for the council.
“If you’re not paying a living wage,” she said, “people don’t care about benefits.”
In an opinion piece for The Imprint, Kelly Harder, the child welfare practice lead for Change & Innovation Agency, wrote that low compensation, high stress and unmanageable caseloads “virtually guarantee staff won’t return unless meaningful changes are implemented.”
Citing the average national turnover rate for child welfare workers — between 23% and 60% annually across private and public child welfare agencies, according to the Child Welfare League of America — Harder noted that “the challenges facing our child welfare system are not new, but they are reaching a tipping point.”
Brady-Stepien said the staffing shortages in programs that aim to keep families out of the foster care system — officially a priority state- and nationwide — are particularly problematic.
“As New York State continues to prioritize prevention of entry into foster care, a 42.6% rate of turnover for prevention caseworkers should stop us in our tracks,” she said. “We must invest in this workforce to grow and develop a pipeline for future leaders in the field, and to provide continuity of care for children and their families.”
Despite the hardship, in many ways, Quintal’s job has been fulfilling. Although the workload weighs heavily on staff, she loves her job, and feels a connection to the young people at the Rubin Home for Boys, which currently serves foster youth ages 15 to 20. The two-story home with a wide wraparound porch and vibrant green lawn, receives a maximum of eight residents at a time.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to know that you helped one of these kids,” Quintal said. “To get that one phone call from that little kid that you worked really hard with to get to his goal of going to college and he calls you and says, ‘I finally got in.’”
But with constantly rising housing costs and the needs of her own children weighing on her mind, she’s yet another social worker who finds herself now looking into state jobs.
“I gotta keep a roof over my kids’ heads, you know?” Quintal said.