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2001 Finding Better Ways Conference Presentation Recap

Making a Career in Child Welfare: Personnel Practices

Joan R. Rycraft
School of Social Work
University of Texas at Arlington

Amid the exodus of caseworkers from the field of public child welfare remains a cadre of experienced professional social workers, grounded by their mission and commitment to children and families, who choose to continue their employment in public child welfare service agencies. These caseworkers have endured the hardships of employment in this challenging arena and have become career child welfare professionals. This paper presents a compilation of findings from studies using personal interviews, surveys, and narratives focused on the retention of public child welfare staff during the last decade. Through these studies, a portrait of the career child welfare professional emerges. This chronicle of their journeys through a complex and often challenging system provides extraordinarily rich data to inform our personnel practices in child welfare and to enhance our efforts to recruit and retain skilled workers.

Career Paths of Child Welfare Practitioners

The majority of child welfare workers entered the field with little knowledge of what the job entailed. For many, it was the only job that was available, and often they just happened by in their search for employment dealing with children. They brought with them, however, expectations of making the world a better place for kids and doing great things. The preparation and training for the job, received from their respective agencies, did not adequately reflect the complexity of the job responsibilities and were often merely an overload of information. Once given a caseload, the caseworkers were faced with the proverbial "sink or swim" dilemma. Those that survived these initial difficulties and chose to continue in public child welfare have established careers in a challenging and rewarding field of practice.

Their survival skills were based on an exceptionally strong commitment to children and families and the development of realistic expectations. They learned to be satisfied with consistent small changes in constantly challenging case situations and recognized the need to seek improvement in their skills and to expand their knowledge base. This in turn provided them with myriad opportunities for advancement within their agencies. Their decisions to retain their employment, while others have surrendered to and departed from the challenge, are based on several factors.

Factors of Retention

Practitioners report four main factors influencing their decisions to maintain employment in public child welfare: mission, goodness of fit, supervision, and investment. These practitioners have a mission to accomplish. They view their jobs as important and necessary to the well being of children and families in our society. They also hold a sense of pride in their jobs, recognize and accept the responsibilities and mandates, and are fervently committed to the safety and protection of children. These caseworkers also express the need for a good match of their skills and interests with their job assignments. A review of their employment paths indicates movement among job assignments throughout the agency until finding their niche. Once found, they settle in and develop an expertise in specific aspects and responsibilities of the job assignment. This is especially noted in their preference between assignments in investigation and ongoing service functions. An especially important factor in caseworker retention is supervision. The supervisor is in a pivotal position to provide a base of support, consultation and guidance, as well as setting the tone for the work unit. Desirable attributes of supervisors include substantive knowledge of the agency, political savvy, advanced clinical practice skills, sound judgment and decision-making, and the ability to strike a balance between expectations and demands. Caseworkers recognize how vital effective supervision is to their survival in the public child welfare work environment. A smaller, yet significant, number of caseworkers identify their personal and professional investment in their jobs as a factor in continuing employment. They have developed close relationships with colleagues and do not want to lose this mutual support system. Their commitment to the profession and several years of employment bring seniority status with the requisite recognition of expertise. With this investment they have gained salary and benefit compensation that would be difficult to match in another setting. To leave would mean significant sacrifice of a long-term investment.

Profiles of Career Child Welfare Practitioners

In any given agency, caseworkers are at different points in their intentions to continue their journey within the public child welfare system. They fall within four broad categories: The Crusaders; The Midway Passengers; The Future Travelers, and The Hangers On. Crusaders continue to find their jobs challenging and exciting. They have a passion for what they are doing and are determined to succeed. These caseworkers have embraced the crusade and call to action for the safety and protection of children. They are the warriors of the agency who see the job as important to the very future of our children and society. For this reason, they are not willing to give up or succumb to the pressures and demands of the system. The Midway Passengers are the texture and fabric of career public child welfare practitioners and represent the backbone of the child welfare delivery system. They have gained the knowledge and expertise to fulfill the responsibilities of the job and are at ease within the system, having learned how to work within it for the benefit of themselves and their clients. They hold an appreciation for their successes, few and small as they may be. These successes are their greatest rewards and what make the difficulties of the job surmountable. A small proportion of caseworkers, primarily those with few years of tenure, are ready to move on. These Future Travelers are at the point where they see the responsibilities and demands of the job as far too great for the compensation and the few and far between rewards they receive in return. Although they are not hostile or bitter about their situation, they recognize the propensity to become so, if a change does not occur. Their major disappointment comes from the tremendous work demands and the constraints and difficulties of working in a bureaucracy. If they cannot find a way to bring the costs and benefits of the job into greater balance they will continue their plans to eventually terminate their employment with their respective agencies. The Hangers On, although few, are disillusioned and hold little interest in their assignments. They have become resentful of the demands of the job but see few, if any, opportunities for other employment. They stay because they have to stay to maintain the level of salary and benefits to which they have become accustomed. These caseworkers are in need of renewal and additional supportive services to provide and maintain an acceptable level of performance.


Although many caseworkers have surrendered to the pressures and have terminated employment in public child welfare, a number of practitioners have chosen to continue their employment in this exceptionally challenging field. To date, most studies have focused on the reasons caseworkers are leaving public child welfare. The data from the compilation of studies presented here identify the factors that influence workers' reasons for staying. This approach may provide an agency much needed information in developing strategies to increase the retention of staff. The perception that "everyone is leaving" is unfounded. There are substantial numbers of career public child welfare practitioners continuing in their commitment to the safety and protection of children. A chronicle of their journeys through the complex system of child welfare practice provides rich data to inform personnel practices.


Helfgott, K. P. (1991) Staffing the child welfare agency: Recruitment and retention. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.

Rycraft, J. R. (1994). The party isn't over: The agency role in the retention of public child welfare caseworkers. Social Work, 39(1), 75-80.

Samantrai, K. (1992). Factors in the decision to leave: Retaining social workers with MSWs in public child welfare. Social Work, 37(5), 454-458.

Contact Information

Joan R. Rycraft, Ph.D., ACSW
University of Texas at Arlington
School of Social Work
Box 19129
211 S. Cooper Street
Arlington, TX 76019
Phone: 817.272.5225
Fax: 817.272.2046

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