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Home > Practice Areas > Child Welfare Standards of Excellence > Caseload Standards


Guidelines for Computing Caseload Standards

The most requested CWLA Standards are those that provide recommended caseload ratios for workers in child welfare program areas, such as child protective services, foster care, adoption, and residential services. These ratios of clients to staff members offer guidance based on the field's consensus of what constitutes best practice. They're also supported by the findings of caseload and workload studies and by projects that show particular success in reaching agency goals. 1

The following broad principles provide a context for agencies as they approach the task of computing caseloads for child welfare workers:

People are the key ingredient in an effective child welfare system.

Child welfare work is labor intensive. Caseworkers must be able to engage families through face-to-face contacts, assess the safety of children at risk of harm, monitor case progress, ensure that essential services and supports are provided, and facilitate the attainment of the desired permanency plan. This cannot be done if workers are unable to spend quality time with children, families, and caregivers. 2

Computing caseloads is an inexact science. When in doubt, err on the side of safety.

When systems are short-staffed, bad things can happen. Studies of critical incidents, including child deaths, child injuries, and children missing from foster care, almost always involve an overworked caseworker who didn't have sufficient time to adequately assess or monitor the child's situation. In addition to leading to such tragedies, insufficient staffing results in inefficient services. 3

Our goal is to ensure safety, permanency, and well-being for all children who come to the attention of the child welfare system. We need to focus on what it takes to achieve these service goals. In the federal Child and Family Service Reviews, those states that showed strength in such areas as family involvement and worker contact with children in foster care were more likely to achieve safety and permanency goals. 4 Caseloads must permit such activities and opportunities.
Currently no universally accepted formula for computing caseloads exists. But the following general rules of thumb can guide jurisdictions in determining the number of workers necessary to meet CWLA's recommended standards:

The CWLA caseload standards are expressed in terms of maximum cases per worker.

Any formula should result in caseloads no greater than the maximum recommended number, rather than exceed it. For example, anticipated vacation and sick leave time, agency holidays, and regularly scheduled training events should be deducted from the number of calendar days to arrive at the total actual workdays available per worker per month. This should be done before computing caseloads.

Some caseload ratios are expressed in terms of cases per month, whereas others are expressed in terms of the number of cases on any given day.

These variations need to be accounted for in computing cases. For example, for investigative workers in child protective services, the recommended caseload is 12 active cases per month. This number should not be construed to mean 12 active cases at any point in time, but 12 active cases in the workdays available during a designated 30-day period or month. Moreover, if the worker is carrying forward cases from the previous month, the number of new cases should be reduced accordingly.

Caseloads should be computed separately for each worker category.

For example, when computing any category of workers, staff who may play a role in service delivery but are not performing the specific functions of this category, should not be included in the worker count. Though helpful, case aides, supervisors, and others who may assist with cases, do not perform the same functions, and including them provides a misleading caseload count.

Case transfers and changes in case status should receive careful consideration.

Caseload counts should accrue to the worker, not to the case. Multiple workers may address the practice needs of a family and its children in a given period. Whenever cases transfer from one worker to another within a specified period, they should be counted on each worker's caseload. The fact that this is a single case does not negate the need to count it as part of each worker's caseload. The same principle applies to changes in case status.

Caseloads and workloads

A U.S. Children's Bureau document, Workload Standards for Children and Family Social Services, differentiates caseload and workload measures as follows:
  • Caseloads are defined as the amount of time workers devote to direct contacts with clients.
  • Workloads are defined as the amount of time required to perform a specific task. 5
Although CWLA recommends caseload ratios for each area of child welfare practice, workloads are best determined through careful time studies conducted within the individual agency. They should be based on the responsibilities assigned to complete a specific set of tasks or units of work for which the worker is responsible. For those agencies interested in developing their own specific workload figures, time required to conduct the following tasks should be calculated:
  • travel;

  • collateral visits, outreach activities, and court schedules;

  • emergencies that interrupt regular work schedules;

  • supervision, consultation, and collaboration;

  • work with community groups;

  • attendance at staff meetings, staff development, professional conferences, and administrative functions;

  • case management; and

  • telephone contacts, reading of records, case recording or computer entry, and reports of conferences and consultations.
  1. The Public Children Services Association of Ohio, which last studied the workload issue in 1997, found that a social worker putting in a normal 40-hour week can conduct about 11 investigations per month. (Knox, D., & Higgins, J. [September 3, 2003]. Caseload Definition in Dispute. Akron Beacon Journal.) A recent Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, study concluded that investigative workers could conduct 16 investigations per month, with the qualification that this number would not permit them to conduct "best practice." They suggested a lower caseload ratio, such as CWLA's recommended 12 investigations per month, would permit best practice. (Yamatani, H., & Engel, R. [November 2002]. Workload Assessment Study. Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth, and Families. Unpublished.)

    The Oregon Project was successful in achieving permanency for children in foster care. This project recommended a maximum caseload of 15 children per worker (Emlen, A.; Lahti, J.; Downs, G.; McKay, A.; & Downs, S. [1977]. Overcoming Barriers to Planning for Children in Foster Care. Portland, Oregon: Regional Research Institute, Portland State University), consistent with CWLA's caseload recommendations of 12-15 children per worker for foster care. A study in Idaho and Washington State showed that when caseloads were reduced to no more than 10 children per worker, permanency for children was accomplished in a timely manner (Katz, L. [1990]. Effective permanency planning for children in foster care. Social Work, 35, 220-26.)

  2. The General Accounting Office, in its March 2003 report, states, "Some of the caseworkers we interviewed handle double the number of cases recommended by advocacy organizations and spend between 50 and 80 percent of their time completing paperwork, thereby limiting their time to assist children and families." (U.S. General Accounting Office. [2003]. Child Welfare: HHS Could Play a Greater Role in Helping Child Welfare Agencies Recruit and Retain Staff' [GAO-03-357]. Available at

  3. A 1998 study of New York's child welfare services found that high workload resulted in incomplete abuse and neglect investigations, an inability of workers to regularly monitor clients, and prolonged permanency decisions for children. (State of New York Comptroller, Division of Management Audit. [1998]. Caseworker Deployment in Selected Child Welfare Programs Report (96-S-52).)

  4. Results of the 2001 and 2002 Child and Family Service Reviews. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ACF, ACYF, Childrens Bureau. Results of the 2001 and 2002 Child and Family Service Reviews. Power point presentation, available at

  5. Developing Workload Standards for Children and Family Social Services. Prepared by Peat, Marwick, Mitchell, and Co., in association with CWLA, for the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1978.

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