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Where Are All the Social Workers Going?

Turnover in the field has reached crisis levels in some places, forcing them to figure out how to hire and keep the right people.

A caseworker, back left, watches a foster mother and a biological mother embrace.
(AP/M. Spencer Green)
Turnover in public-sector jobs is a ubiquitous problem. But when it comes to social services, the problem is particularly painful. 

One well-known study found that with one caseworker, the chance for a child to achieve a permanent and stable living situation was 74 percent. If a child had two caseworkers in one year, the odds dropped to 17 percent. With three caseworkers, it was a mere 5 percent. 

“Turnover is devastating,” said Scott McCown, a former judge and now director of the Children’s Rights Center at the University of Texas Law School. “If you’re a caseworker, you develop a relationship with the parent and child. That’s what helps you help them. But every time there’s turnover, you start from scratch.”  

If clients find themselves working with a different social services worker every few months, their confidence in their care and willingness to comply with bureaucracy can be lost. Constant workforce churn costs not just clients hope but governments money. Training a new social services worker costs $54,000, according to the Texas Senate Committee on Finance.

Once turnover persists, it creates conditions that lead to a seemingly never-ending cycle: experienced caseworkers don’t have time to mentor new ones, caseloads increase, backlogs develop, tempers flare, pressures rise and burnout shows no signs of fading.

This is an issue in most of America, but in some places, it has recently reached crisis levels.

In Kentucky, a third of the social services workforce in the state’s largest county has been lost to turnover since January. Tim Feeley, the deputy secretary for health and family services, said the county has reached “the breaking point.” In Texas, an auditor’s report last year found that social services had the highest turnover of all job categories -- 25 percent of employees were jumping ship within one year. 

The difficulty in hiring and retaining social workers has pushed agencies to make changes.

The Texas Child Protective Services dropped its educational requirements for workers. The state now accepts workers with an associate’s degree and a couple of years of experience. Observers say this puts the educational requirements more on par with the starting salary, which can be as low as $33,000.

Texas is also working on a new training approach to better prepare people for the challenges ahead. Instead of the traditional three-month training period outside the workplace, the state is now pairing new hires with mentors for a month of on-the-job shadowing. That’s followed by a shorter period of classroom training. In addition, caseloads are now being given to new workers on a gradual basis to avoid overwhelming them with too much, too soon. 

With all those tweaks, a preliminary evaluation shows a promising reduction in turnover, though final data is not available yet.

Elsewhere, some agencies are focusing on weeding out applicants who may not be able to handle the job by showing them what it’s really like before they commit.

“People aren’t aware of the emotional toll the job takes,” said Jerry Greenwell, the chief executive officer of CPS HR Consulting, which provides the human resources function to the social services arm of many California counties. “The job preview [video] screens out the person who would leave the job. It means only serious applicants apply.”

Buncombe County, N.C., has also used job preview videos successfully. In addition, the county checks in with new hires 30, 60 and 90 days after they started to find out if they're facing any difficulties. Using these techniques and others developed in partnership with the Jordan Family Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the county brought down its turnover rate from a high of 39 percent just prior to the recession to an average of 12 percent over the last 10 years.

Similarly, New Jersey has worked to make social services work a career choice and not just a job. 

“We are very focused on supporting their professional development and building their careers,” said Allison Blake, the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Children and Family Services. 

The state, which has been under court orders since 2004 to dramatically reduce caseloads, also starts their child welfare workers at $48,000. The actions taken since have driven turnover down from 18 percent to 7 percent, according to Blake.

“If the workers are well-supported and well-trained, stable and committed, they’re able to do that same kind of work with children and families to get them stabilized,” said Sara Munson, director of the Institute for Families at Rutgers University School of Social Work. “When we do well by the workforce, that keeps cost down later.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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