Five Easy Pieces

(Originally published May 2012)

Child welfare policymakers and managers in a number of states continue to engage in non- stop reform of policies, practice models and administrative structures while ignoring or actually undermining the child welfare workforce. The idea that standardized assessment tools, new practice models, an ever increasing regulatory framework and /or new administrative structures (e.g., privatization, stand- alone agency, oversight groups) can achieve dramatic improvements in agencies which pay caseworkers inadequate salaries while assigning direct services staff overwhelming workloads and otherwise treating them like disposable commodities is a persistent tendency in child welfare management.


Possibly, some directors of state child welfare agencies in turmoil know better, but are forced by extreme political pressures to engage in futile quick fixes that create an appearance – but not the reality – of comprehensive system reform. Workforce development initiatives of the type described below are not quick fixes; they require several years to begin to pay long lasting dividends. Ironically, one of these dividends is the enhanced capacity of agencies to implement practice changes and new practice models that lead to sustained improvements in outcomes, changes that require an experienced, skilled and committed workforce.  It is true that large increases in funding can lead to rapid improvements in services, but absent major investments in the workforce, agencies are unlikely to sustain these improvements. The skills, knowledge and commitment of the workforce are the foundation on which sustainable practice changes must be built.


Effective workforce development initiatives require five major investments:


  • Salaries for caseworkers and supervisors that will attract and retain applicants with BSWs, MSWs and other advanced degrees, for example in psychology or nursing, as well as  caseworkers with two or more years of public child welfare experience.

  • Reasonable workload standards utilized by the legislature and Governor’s office to fund casework positions, supervisory positions, management positions and administrative support positions; and rigorously applied in assigning cases at the unit level.

  • Programs that support professional development of staff at all levels of the organizations, for example by funding certification programs in substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence, child development or adolescent development, cultural competence or Indian child welfare; or leadership development programs that invest in the potential of staff for exerting a positive influence on policy or practice.

  • Development of organizational environments that support lifelong learning, and reward (instead of punishing) initiative and risk taking.

  • The support of agency staff in achieving work / family life balance, and maintaining physical and emotional health and well- being. Occasional breaks from case assignment and educational sabbaticals for veteran staff are needed to sustain high level performance in these emotionally demanding positions.


To understand why these investments are needed to develop and sustain a highly experienced and skilled workforce, it is useful to reflect on current hiring practices in child welfare agencies around the country. Most applicants hired into casework positions in public child welfare agencies have had little, if any, professional preparation for these jobs; and even caseworkers with BSWs or MSWs may not have taken courses that prepared them for child protection or  work with troubled children and youth. Child welfare agencies hire very few professionals into casework positions; professionalism must usually be developed on the job. However, within a few years, many newly hired caseworkers develop both impressive knowledge and skills, and just as importantly, personal commitment to working with vulnerable children and their families. The departure of experienced and skilled casework staff is a loss that cannot easily be replaced. Vacancies may be filled in a few weeks or months (during which time other unit members must carry the cases left behind by caseworkers leaving the agency), but it often takes 2-3 years (or longer) before newly hired caseworkers acquire a professional level of skills and knowledge.


Casework in child welfare is too demanding to tolerate annual turnover rates of 20-25% (the average turnover rate found in most studies), or even higher turnover rates in key positions such as CPS Investigator. However, a turnover rate doesn’t describe the characteristics of staff leaving agencies: caseworkers who could not adapt to the demands of the work and who have been fired or urged by supervisors to find other employment (good turnover), employees who are retiring (unavoidable turnover), staff with educational backgrounds and exceptional talents which give them marketable skills (bad turnover) and employees whose health, mental health or family life has been compromised by the demands of the job (preventable turnover). Nevertheless, as these comments indicate, some caseworkers should be fired or strongly advised to find another job; and some turnover is unavoidable, but the loss of talented and committed staff is a huge waste of resources that cannot be easily recouped with a new employee.


There is a body of research indicating that quality of supervision is the most important factor influencing caseworkers’ decisions to leave the child welfare agency or remain in child welfare; and there have been equivocal findings about the influence of salary on decisions to stay or leave child welfare agencies. However, research studies rarely focus on decisions of staff with highly marketable skills to either seek child welfare employment or remain in child welfare jobs. Salary level is likely to have the greatest influence on the career decisions of job candidates or employees with the best educations and most marketable skills. If highly educated and talented employees leave child welfare agencies for better paying jobs, but less well educated or less talented staff remain in child welfare, then it is the nature of turnover (rather than the turnover rate per se) that affects quality of the workforce.


The salaries paid to caseworkers and supervisors by public child welfare agencies vary to a remarkable degree. Some states offer entry level salaries in casework positions of $25,000 - $30,000 per year and have annual top-out salaries in these same positions of around $40,000 - $45,000 per year. These are not the salaries paid to respected professionals; and this salary scale embodies the unstated view that caseworkers with limited (if any) professional skills are easy to find and replace. This is a mistaken understanding of the demands of child welfare jobs and of the importance of job experience that sets up agencies for continuous turmoil. Some management teams believe they can compensate for extremely low salaries and high turnover in casework positions through investments in supervision, a strategy that places unreasonable expectations on supervisors to effectively micro-manage 100-200 open cases and accompany new caseworkers on most home visits, case staffing and court appearances. 


There is a large group of states, including Washington State, that have entry level salaries in casework positions of $35,000 - $40,00 per year and top- out salaries of $50,000 - $60,000. Caseworkers with 10-30 years of experience in Washington State make less than $53,000 per year. In some states such as Washington, these salary levels may be adequate to recruit and retain caseworkers in some areas of the state (e.g., rural areas, small cities) but are inadequate to support a family in major metropolitan areas such as King County. If there is an underlying logic to this salary scale, it is that persons with social work backgrounds or interests who work for private agencies make $5,000 - $10,000 less per year in Washington State for comparable experience; and consequently will often choose to work for the state rather than private agencies. However, many well educated talented social workers with career choices will not seek jobs or remain in jobs that leave them unable to support their families while possibly negatively affecting their health and emotional well- being. An elite work force cannot be developed with this salary scale which, in Washington State, has been reduced rather than increased in recent years. This is a salary scale that delivers the public policy message, “We’re happy with a workforce with limited professional skills,” which is a seriously mistaken estimate of the professionalism and value to CA of most experienced caseworkers and supervisors.


There is a small group of states, including Illinois and New Jersey, with entry level salaries in casework positions of almost $50,000 or more; and top- out salaries for caseworkers in some of these states (including Minnesota) are in the $65,000 - $77,000 range. New Jersey’s turnover rate is less than 10% and Illinois’s rate is slightly higher than 10%. These states are making a serious effort to recruit the cream of the crop in BSW and MSW programs and retain experienced caseworkers and supervisors; and these states have the opportunity to develop elite workforces. There is no widely used measure of organizational commitment which might be indicated by affirmations such as “I’m proud of the organization I work for and I’m committed to making it better,” but these attitudes are likely to be related (in part) to level of salary and benefits paid to direct services staff and supervisors.


Salary is an important consideration in workforce development, but other factors matter as well. Workloads that are reasonable for a 40 hour week and that allow direct services staff to do good work are of great importance. In order to manage workloads, agencies must be able to accurately measure the demands on caseworkers and understand the complexities of workload management. For example, the most important statistic in measuring the workload of CPS investigators is the average number of new investigations assigned per month as measured by a count of families in new investigations. In out- of- home care   positions, the average number of children in foster care or unlicensed kinship care is the key measure because for each of these children in open cases there are legal requirements and visitation expectations. 


In recent years, a number of child welfare agencies around the country have established a standard of 12 new investigations per month for CPS investigators, but given the steadily increasing requirements of policy frameworks, 10 new investigations per month is probably closer to what investigators can manage and meet policy expectations in most jurisdictions. Foster care caseloads should not be higher than 12-15 children per caseworker and possibly lower. Workload standards must be adjusted regularly to accommodate regulatory frameworks which tend to steadily increase due to pressures from advocates and the federal government to improve practice, and the dependence of agencies on detailed policy and procedures manuals.


Playing fast and loose with workload standards erodes practice standards (always, given enough time) and reduces organizational commitment of direct services staff. It is a form of exploitation that is alive and well in many agencies due to budget cuts and loss of positions during the economic downturn. Caseworkers who work in agencies with overwhelming workloads are likely to have jaundiced and derisive attitudes toward the organization and its top managers, especially if managers deny that workload problems exist, minimize their extent and fail to lobby for needed FTEs. 


Given the extraordinary demands on child welfare staff to understand the fundamentals of substance abuse and mental health assessment, domestic violence, child development and cultural competence, every public child welfare agency should be making investments in the professional development of their staff at all levels. It has become increasingly obvious that mandating one or two days of training on specialized subjects is not an effective approach to skill development. What agencies need to do is hire more staff with professional experience in key areas such as substance abuse, mental health, DV and child development, and fund certification programs that offer 90 hours or more of in- depth training. Child welfare agencies should also give small salary increases (e.g., 3-5%) to staff who obtain certifications that can be utilized in their jobs.


Leadership development programs that involve staff at all levels of the organization have the potential to greatly increase the organizational commitment of participants. My personal experience in child welfare has been that agency investment in leadership programs that include caseworkers and administrative support staff creates a powerful motivation for these staff to invest in the agency. Enlightened managers willing to invest in developing the potential of their staff to take initiative and exercise positive influence on child welfare policy and practice can look for models in Franklin County, Ohio and on the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute web site at http://www.                                                                                                                    


Many, perhaps most, child welfare agencies are managed in ways that disempower staff, stifle initiative and create risk aversive organizational cultures. Top- down approaches to implementation of state wide initiatives, detailed policy frameworks that seek to regulate every aspect of casework practice, lack of interest in the perspectives of caseworkers and supervisors, an intolerance for internal debates or critical questions and rewarding unthinking compliance with rules and directives are ways in which agencies discourage learning, or for that matter rational discussion of policies and practices. 


Organizations that genuinely want to develop cultures of learning must invest in the training and professional development, and in the rigorous evaluation of programs and practices; but the most urgently needed step is to provide time and opportunities for units and offices to create and test practice improvements. Initiative and innovation at the unit and office level is an indication that agencies are willing to allow learning at the practice level rather than waiting for top managers and key legislators to completely determine agency direction.


Child welfare managers should apply the same principles of strength based practice to their relationships with caseworkers and supervisors which they would like direct services staff to utilize with families: respect for and curiosity about the perspectives of caseworkers and supervisors; recognizing and building on strengths of employees and units; engaging caseworkers and supervisors in agency planning, including goal setting; listening to “yes buts” instead of suppressing criticism; rewarding candor, initiative and persistence in overcoming obstacles; thoughtful use of information, e.g., data, and minimal use of coercion.


Finally, agencies that value caseworkers and supervisors must be concerned with their health and emotional well- being. Concretely, this means giving caseworkers and supervisors a greater degree of control of work schedules and in organizing their work.  A sure formula for poor health and mental health is to combine large amounts of responsibility and accountability for case outcomes with little if any control in the work environment. Bureaucracies that systematically disempower direct services staff also endanger their health and emotional well- being.


An increased concern among child welfare managers regarding the impact on direct services staff of high stress jobs requiring day in day out decision making affecting the safety and well- being of children and families is urgently needed. Caseworkers and supervisors who receive enlightened support of the agencies they work for are more likely to respond to children and parents they encounter in thoughtful and compassionate ways.     


© 2020 by Dee Wilson Consulting. Proudly created with