Saturday, January 29, 2011

Child welfare workforce turnover- what's the problem?

(c) creative commons brianhendrix

I have dedicated the last several years of my research career to studying the problem of child welfare workforce turnover.  High turnover of frontline child welfare workers is a national (and international) problem. The average stay of a child welfare worker in the US is about 2.5 years. So what's the problem?

1.  It takes workers time to learn system issues and effective practice.  Some research suggests it takes about 2 years.  If workers leave just as they are learning the job, they are taking what they've learned with them, and clients are often served by newer workers.

2. Turnover is expensive.  It can cost about $35,000-$50,000 in direct costs (training, advertising, recruitment, payout of earned time) each time a worker leaves.  This cost impacts the budget of agencies who could be spending the money for more direct services to families or perhaps even preventative services. If a small office loses 10 workers per year, this could be $500,000 in funds that are used to replace workers instead of serve children.

3.  Turnover is contagious.  When a worker leaves, it places a workload burden on other workers. Studies show that turnover and the associated poor morale can be contagious in agencies.

4. Turnover impacts the vulnerable clients that child welfare agencies serve.  Often children involved in child welfare have a history of unstable relationships, seperation, and loss, and worker turnover heightens this experience.  Children in care report that they have a harder time trusting social workers because of turnover, and even feel responsible for workers leaving the agency.

5. Turnover is linked to lengthened time to permanency.  When a new worker gets a case, she has to learn the history and about the family.  There may be gaps in services when workers change (before a new worker picks up the case).  This may mean that it takes more time before children are safely returned home or until they can be adopted.

 Although some research has focused on the qualities of an individual worker that might lead them to be more committed or the ways that agencies can train workers in efficiency, my research has focused on the things that child welfare organizations (often governmental agencies) can do differently to better retain workers.  Ultimately, changing organizations to better support workers will be more effective than changing individual workers to deal with dysfunctional organizations.  In a later post I will talk about some of the organizational predictors of turnover and the things agencies can do to support workforce stability, as well as the people and organizations working on solutions to this problem.

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