On September 18, the Concord Monitor published a story about the child welfare workforce that is probably too typical of several state and local child welfare workforce situations. The workforce is vital to any successful changes, improvements, or reforms in prevention, reducing the number of separated families, and helping children and youth reach a permanent placement (meaning fewer youth “aging-out” or exiting foster care without a family connection). Yet, the workforce is frequently missing in any discussions about making improvements. The recent emphasis on consulting people with “lived experience” and making sure they are involved in the planning process, and program/services design usually leaves caseworkers out of thatstrategy.
The story, Revolving Door at DCYF:’As soon as they hire one new person, two people leave’ starts by quoting a child protective services worker in Manchester, New Hampshire, saying he could always tell when a worker was about to quit. “They grew dour and quiet. They stifled sobs at their desk as cases continued to pile up.” According to the report, 30 of 44 child protective service workers have quit in that one Manchester office in the past three years. For the entire state, 196 workers out of 283 have left or transferred since 2019.
As pointed out, high turnover leaves inexperienced workers to handle some of the high stakes and critical life-changing decisions to people overworked, maybe under supervised, and under increasing stress. In the past year, that stress included being exposed to Covid-19, as some workers were.
To think of it another way, the lived experiences of young people aging out, birth parents, foster parents, and other people touched by the child welfare system are affected by the ability of these workers to do their jobs.
According to the Children’s Corp in New York City, “Children with one caseworker achieve permanency in 74.5% of cases. But the more caseworkers involved in a child’s life, the less chance that child has to achieve permanency, ranging from 17.5% for children with two caseworkers to the devastatingly low rate of 0.1% for children who had six or seven caseworkers during their time in care.
A few days after the New Hampshire story, Mountain State Spotlight published, Foster kids need families to live with and state social workers to check on them. West Virginia doesn’t have enough of either.
It outlined some of the same challenges and shortages and focused on how it is affecting the needed supply of family foster care. It said West Virginia has two key shortages, child protective services workers and foster homes. Nearly two-thirds of children are 10 or younger, and like many states, there are not enough foster homes for some specialized placements, especially for older children (youth), keeping siblings together, and children with special needs. As decades of experience demonstrates, for foster families to help recruit and encourage other families to be foster parents, they need to be happy with the experience.
Making the Family First Prevention Services Act successful is based in part on having enough family foster homes. Think of all the improvements sought, including keeping families together, finding more family foster care to prevent the use of group homes, and reaching out and supporting youth about to exit foster care. Each one of these initiatives requires a well-staffed and well-supported workforce that does not turnover.
Yet little effort is made to get their input on issues like how to keep families together, increase the supply of family foster care or prevent a young person from exiting the system to “independence.” As one Manchester worker noted, “When one worker quit, their open cases were redistributed to the remaining employees until they too were at their breaking point and quit.”
From the New Hampshire Office of Child Advocate, Moira O’Neill tells the Concord Monitor she worries about the years of experience lost when tens of people quit each year. So should all advocates and child welfare reformers.