Published in Children’s VoiceVolume 32, Number 1

by the CWLA Emerging Leaders Committee

Whether someone is new to the work of child welfare or has been doing it for years, they likely have experienced the recent challenges related to agencies building and maintaining a stable workforce. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation along with efforts to return to in-office functioning, but these challenges did not just start with the pandemic. To strengthen and grow our workforce, each member plays a critical role in fulfilling the challenge of being the change we want to see. Leadership happens at all levels. Tapping into the potential and strengths of existing and emerging leaders is essential to building a system that allows child welfare staff to do the difficult work of ensuring child safety and helping families to flourish.

In this article, emerging leaders are defined as staff in an agency that have expressed a desire to grow beyond the tasks and responsibilities outlined in their position descriptions— or staff who demonstrate the potential for growth through mentorship or other developmental opportunities. There are multiple dimensions to building a sustainable workforce that provide opportunities for professional growth, mental well-being, and work-life balance. Investing in emerging leaders can be a way to achieve this goal.

Building a Culture of Safety to Attract and Retain Talent
Agencies must start by assessing their work climates. While compliance with various regulations, policies, rules, and laws are essential to the work of child safety, agencies need to strike a balance between compliance and being trauma-informed while providing employment opportunities that help staff find a deeper purpose and satisfaction in their work. A strong, unified, and supportive culture is crucial for anticipating, managing, and responding to the needs of the workforce but also the inevitable crises that occur in the field of child welfare (Casey Family Programs, 2020). Cultivating and maintaining a safe culture in an organization which values attitudes and behaviors that support change, where the workforce is engaged and reliable, and in which the agency strives toward error-free operations, is crucial to innovation and retention (Vogus et al., 2010). Safety science strives to create a balance between individual and system accountability, and values open communication, feedback and continuous learning and improvement (Chassin & Lobb, 2012). Approaching critical incidents with empathy, asking for—and listening to—the voice of the staff creates the opportunity to truly understand the individual in addition to the system story. It creates a relationship where frontline staff understand that critical incidents may happen, but that staff will be treated as a human, with respect and compassion, while simultaneously having the opportunity to have their voices heard related to what they need to succeed and what the system needs to improve. Utilizing a safe system review or after-action debriefing following a critical incident, such as the death of a child, demonstrates the agency’s commitment to a supportive culture for staff while also identifying system improvements.

To fully create a culture of safety for staff, this type of open communication and support should be embedded throughout every part of the work, not just critical incidents. This culture of safety is not just about physical safety but also the psychological safety of staff and those served.

Leadership advisor Timothy R. Clark (Psychological Safety, 2021) describes four stages of psychological safety:

1. Inclusion, a sense of feeling value and belonging through team acceptance and shared identity. Organizations should proactively talk to their staff—ask what they need, what is going well, what barriers they are experiencing, and what they need to succeed;

2. Learner safety (safe to seek understanding, experiment, and learn from mistakes);

3. Contributor safety (ok to say what is needed and actively participate in the team); and,

4. Challenger safety (question the status quo without retribution).

The goal is to create an environment in which all staff, at all levels, feel that they can contribute new ideas and suggestions or ask for clarification and even why things are done the way they are. When organizations are in a state of high psychological safety, staff are better able to attend to the psychological safety of the children and families with whom they interact. There is also greater accountability. Holding the agency and staff accountable creates an environment where families, staff, and the agency flourish. When staff flourish, they feel connected to the organization’s mission and tend to remain invested in the work.

This is an excerpt. To read the rest of this article, login as a CWLA member or download this issue of Children’s Voice here.

To learn more about CWLA’s Emerging Leaders Committee or more about the initiatives mentioned above, please contact Julie Collins, VP Practice Excellence, at


Casey Family Programs. (2020, November 12). How can child protection agencies use safety science to promote a safety culture? Author.

Chassin, M. R., & Loeb, J. M. (2011). The ongoing quality improvement journey: next stop, high reliability. Health Affairs, 30(4), 559–568.

Psychological Safety. (2021, June 15). The four stages of psychological safety. Author.

Rienks, S.L. (2020). An exploration of child welfare caseworkers’ experience of secondary trauma and strategies for coping. Child Abuse and Neglect, 110(3), 104355.

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Vogus, T.J., Weick, K.E., & Sutcliffe, K.M. (2010). Doing No Harm: Enabling, Enacting, and Elaborating a Culture of Safety in Health Care. Academy of Management Perspectives, 24(4), 60-77.