Published in Children’s Voice, Volume 31, Number 1

Perspective: The Workforce Crisis in Child Welfare Might be the Tip of an Iceberg
by Paul DiLorenzo and Jeff Lukich

There is an ongoing crisis in child welfare. As two seasoned child welfare professionals, we are alarmed at the level of vacancies and staff turnover in child welfare agencies all over the country—especially at the practitioner level. The harsh reality is that agencies are desperately doing everything they can to make positions in child welfare more attractive than higher-paying, lower-stress jobs in other human services roles.

We realize there is no attributing this crisis to a single factor. Whole chapters can be written about poor salaries, insufficient staff support, and unreasonable child welfare workloads. However, there might be value in paying attention to one issue destabilizing any organization. For many agencies, the lack of clarity about purpose and mission might be making it more difficult to recruit and retain talented team members.

Recently we both reflected on our first jobs in the field. The competition for the positions was steep, and the pay was low. What we lacked in experience, or had not learned in social work school, would be supplemented by seasoned supervisors who would meet with the newbies at least weekly. Those meetings went far beyond the need for compliance with agency policy or compliance with regulations. Supervision of new child welfare staff was a combination of training and education, guidance on agency policy, and frequent conversations related to the social work “process.” This professional mentoring and support built capacity and confidence across the agency. A competent supervisor was the connecting tissue between our front-line practice with families and the agency’s broader mission and purpose.

For both of us, that connection provided us with a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. Like many of our co-workers, we entered the profession with a commitment to social justice and that underserved families and communities deserve the very best interventions and supports possible. Though child welfare was still firmly rooted in child rescue thinking, there was still an understanding that the social service system was the fragile safety net for society’s disenfranchised. At the time, young professionals committed to social change had few options for acting on their beliefs. This commitment was a common denominator for many professional social workers at the time.

Agency administrators, foundations, consultants, and legislators are trying their best to remediate the challenge. We have seen child welfare reform efforts attempt to address workforce issues across the country. They identify everything from salary issues, working conditions, caseload size, and professional development opportunities. There is every reason to believe that these are among the most critical levers for improvement. But what if our challenge is also a reflection of our own uncertainty about what we are asking people to do other than to help us address the latest agency or family crisis? Attracting and retaining people who come sign on to an agency has to be rooted in the affirmative roles of child welfare. As our profession continues to evolve and “transform,” are we clear on what we are asking young professionals to do?

The shortage of qualified practitioners and the dizzying staff turnover rate have created a high degree of ongoing instability within many agencies. More concerning is the impact of this instability on the quality and quantity of services being delivered to families. A diminished sense of vision and purpose directly affects staffing and workforce issues in child welfare organizations. When work demands are high, and resources are low, agencies are forced to become less focused and purpose-driven, limiting themselves to compliance issues. “Good enough casework” becomes the equivalent of “good enough parenting.” Instead of innovation, they resort to reacting to crises. Because of high workload demands, case managers have less time to work directly with families and are sometimes left “brokering services.” Those adaptations have no connection to the greater good or the future well-being of the agency. Impromptu decision- making is likely to take the path of least resistance with informal lines of authority. Everything is focused on a single incident-related moment, thus destroying the chances for a strong organizational culture that genuinely values its workforce’s competence, contributions, and commitment. Over time, when there are more vacancies and turnover, the opportunity for enhancing the agency’s performance and work environment begins to erode.

This blurred sense of direction directly impacts the short-term functioning of the child welfare community, and it has long-term implications for what we will need to do within the context of a different kind of child welfare approach.

The most relevant short-term question remains: How will agencies fill positions today? The damage caused by today’s vacancies to client families and organizations is almost irreparable. The stress and strain are almost too much to manage for the agency’s team because they know that the longer it goes on, the ability to keep kids safe and stable is untethered from best practice and agency policy. They develop spotty, sometimes careless adaptive behaviors that increase the likelihood of mistakes. It’s a gradual movement of organizations towards poor quality. It becomes a daily struggle for emotional survival for the team members who have stayed on board. All of this happens in the context of frequent leadership changes at the top and deteriorating morale throughout the agency.

And if we are serious about our relevance and survival as a profession, the long term should not be ignored. If we are genuinely committed to a transformed approach to child welfare, maybe our entire perspective on recruiting, hiring, and retaining staff needs to be revamped. Why are we using the same thought process, requirements, and parameters for recruiting and hiring team members when we hope to become better at family engagement and support? Why are we limiting our search to full-time team members who work from 9am to 5pm when we acknowledge that kids and families operate on an unpredictable schedule? Why aren’t we looking for more parent aides with lived experience who can partner with families in their own homes and neighborhoods? Why are we still hiring primarily for surveillance and not support? Maybe the roles for which we are recruiting are different? Perhaps we could be more flexible with the qualifications for entry-level positions while still focusing on the quality of services? Maybe a refreshed vision for our profession should require a different skill set, commitment, and belief system from those whom we set out to hire?

Today’s workforce crisis has been developing for years within public and private agencies. The COVID-19 pandemic might have aggravated and elevated what had been festering for years, exposing even more weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Our workforce challenges result from several internal and external circumstances, many of which we have no control over. But when it comes to our clarity of purpose, vision, primary responsibility, and our “why,” we have the proactive responsibility for articulating and reinforcing it in all that we do. No one else can control how we align the resources necessary to create a relevant and unambiguous organizational culture. Until we find our way towards the light, our case managers and supervisors will remain frustrated in their roles, reactive in their practice, underappreciated for all they endure, and uninterested in the next evolution of child welfare.

Paul DiLorenzo, ACSW, MLSP, is an independent consultant and child welfare subject matter expert. He has been named as a senior fellow at the Child Welfare League of America. In addition, he serves as a subject matter expert for the Capacity Building Center for States. Mr. DiLorenzo began his career as a caseworker, then went on to serve in a variety of administrative and leadership roles in government and non-profit settings. Recently, he served as the interim executive director of the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance. He also spent 13 years at Casey Family Programs as a Senior Director for Strategic Consulting. He has written numerous professional articles and has been a guest keynote speaker at many professional events across the country. He holds a master’s in social work from Temple University and a master’s in law and social policy from Bryn Mawr College.

Originally from Charleston, South Carolina, Jeff Lukich has worked in child welfare for the past 33 years. He began his career with the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services in 1989, remaining with the Division for 30 years. For the final six years of his career, he served as the State Director of Field Operations and the State Director of Child Welfare. He retired in 2018 as the Division’s Chief of Staff. In 2019, he accepted a Senior Director position with the Atlanta–Washington, DC, management consulting firm, DLH Corporation. In this role, he is responsible for developing and leading human services initiatives, including child welfare. Jeff is a graduate of Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, with a BA in Political Science and History.