A Critical Look at the Child Welfare System
Caseworker Turnover


Certain child abuse "professionals" have labeled child abuse "as American as apple pie." If child abuse is the apple pie, then Child Protective Services may well be the apple turnover of the child abuse bakery.

In Massachusetts, for example, the turnover among Department of Social Services social workers is currently 300 per year.[1]

Dare Family Services Northeast Region, a private nonprofit agency that provides adoption and foster placement under contract with the Massachusetts Department of Social Services reported an 80 percent turnover since the policy of dealing with whole families rather than single children went into effect in July of 1990. Its Taunton office reported a 100 percent turnover.[2]

In Prince William County, Virginia, the ranks of Child Protective Services have been battered by low morale and a staggering 60 percent annual turnover rate, said Department head Ricardo Perez to the Prince William County Board of Supervisors.

"A 60 percent turnover rate -- that's greater than staff help at the 7-Eleven," said County Supervisor Loring B. Thompson (R-Brentsville) who questioned whether low staffing was really to blame for all the problems in the agency. "You begin to wonder somewhat about the management of the organization."[3]

In Florida, the Miami Herald reports that staff turnover among child protective caseworkers actually decreased in 1993, from a previous high of 40% down to 23%.[4]

What are the tangible impacts of the high caseloads, the false reports that caseworkers are called upon to investigate, and the resultant high turnover among child protective workers? According to the Miami Herald:

In 1997, Broward County reached a point of near-crisis, with turnover among its foster care workers at 85 percent. By 1998, attorneys from the Youth Law Center were calling its foster care system one of the most dangerous and over-crowded in the nation, threatening that a lawsuit loomed imminent.[5]

According to one recent report issued by the General Accounting office: "Next to funding, states report that staffing is the most serious issue facing their child welfare systems. In response to an APWA survey, 90 percent of states reported difficulty recruiting and retaining caseworkers."

Attributing difficulties in recruiting and retaining caseworkers to several factors, including hiring freezes, low pay, and poor working conditions, the report concludes:

These factors, in turn, led to staff shortages, high caseloads, and high burnout and turnover rates among caseworkers. In some jurisdictions, caseloads have reached 100 cases per caseworker, well above the 25 per caseworker recommended by the National Association of Social Workers. In New York City, annual turnover rates for caseworkers have been as high as 75 percent, so that each year most foster children, who have suffered from unstable families, get a new caseworker.[6]
Douglas Besharov, founding director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, described one New York City case that had been passed from worker-to-worker in a recent article in Social Science and Modern Society:

In a 1992 New York City case, for example, five-month-old Jeffrey Harden died from burns caused by scalding water and three broken ribs while under the supervision of New York City's Child Welfare Administration. Jeffrey Harden's family had been known to the administration for more than a year and a half. Over this period, the case had been handled by four separate caseworkers, each conducting only partial investigations before resigning or being reassigned to new cases. It is unclear whether Jeffrey's death was caused by his mother or her boyfriend, but because of insufficient time and overburdened caseloads, all four workers failed to pay attention to a whole host of obvious warning signals.[7]
Cases are reassigned, passed from worker-to-worker as workers are transfered or resign. Children in need of services, or lingering in foster care, are lucky to see the same caseworker twice--if they are lucky enough to see one at all.

"The rate of burnout and turnover among CPS workers is alarmingly high, resulting in a workforce that is chronically inexperienced and under-trained," notes the National Conference of State Legislatures.[8]

Nor is the problem isolated to larger metropolitan areas. Evidence of under-trained and inexperienced child protective services caseworkers is virtually everywhere to be found.

Notes a California Grand Jury: "Due to the high employee turnover rate in Child Protective Services, Social Workers doing Immediate Response and Initial Services often lack experience." [9]

"The vacancies created by caseworker turnover have resulted in increased workload for the remaining caseworkers, less experienced caseworkers assuming increased responsibilities, and higher costs to train new caseworkers," writes the Texas State Auditor in a 1995 report.[10]

"High staff turnover rates, low pay, inadequate training, inadequate supervision, etc., lead to poor casework practice in many cases, despite good intentions," the Child Welfare League of America told a Senate committee.[11]

Civil service procedures may well be a major contributing factor to the continuing crises faced by child welfare agencies.

In Massachusetts, a 1993 report issued by the Governor's Special Commission on Foster Care recommended abolishing the civil service system used by the Department of Social Services in the hiring and promotion of workers, finding the agency to be on the verge of organizational collapse, with management and leadership failures having left the department virtually paralyzed.

As a result, the commission said, the Department is unable to effectively serve the needs of children and families and that many children, while in the care of the department, suffer continued and repeated abuse and neglect.

In its 280-page report, the commission recommended a complete restructuring of the agency, saying that without an overhaul, any other recommended changes will be nearly impossible to undertake.

"This commission is asking for nothing less than a serious reformulation of the objectives of the state's child protection and child welfare systems," said Dr. Eli Newberger, a commission member and director of family development programs at Children's Hospital.[12]

Higher stress, client contact positions are filled primarily by newer staff, often transfers from other agencies using the child protective position as a stepping-stone to other civil service positions, argues John M. Hagedorn, former director of the Milwaukee Youth Initiative.

"Many of the new transfer employees wait their mandatory six months and then bid to a 'better' job within social services," notes Hagedorn. "Thus the crucial jobs of client contact are held by a mix of highly committed, but frustrated staff, and staff who are 'stuck' in those positions until they can bid out."

Hagedorn notes that the fragmentation of social services has created "eagerly sought after islands of relief" from the stresses of day-to-day contact with troubled families. Older, typically white social workers advance in seniority as they bid for better and better jobs within the bureaucracy, transferring to the "nooks and crannies" of the bureaucracy, to specialty positions like "purchase liaison," which entail little client contact.[13]

Mismanagement and sexual harassment also account for a part of the turnover problem in some agencies.

In Florida, management at the child protective services office in Bradenton was found to have "potentially serious problems," according to a state investigative report.

Two managers, Stephen Kibbey, program administrator for child protective investigations, and Ruth Hansel, an abuse investigative supervisor, were demoted to non-supervisory positions in the wake of the report.

The report was sparked when two anonymous letters sent to state legislators and Gov. Lawton Chiles alleging a litany of problems, including allegations that supervisors forced employees to lie in court about child abuse cases, falsified information to fire certain employees, intimidated children during child abuse interviews and bribed clients to lie about cases.

The letters led to an Inspector General's investigation, which said that Kibbey verbally abused his staff and Hansel engaged in and allowed sexually inappropriate behavior in her office.

Employee dissatisfaction at the local HRS office led to the two anonymous letters complaining of conditions there. The letters said things were so bad that children in Manatee County would suffer or die because of the poor management of child abuse and neglect cases.

A former HRS child protection counselor who retired in 1995 after 17 years with HRS said the allegations sounded to her as true. "From what I know, what I read sounded very much like what's happening," she told reporters. "The people who do the good work just don't get the promotions."[14]

Similar problems were identified in California, as the 1990-91 Santa Barbara Grand Jury explained:

In reviewing the operations of the Santa Barbara CPS Division, the Grand Jury was appalled by the degree of mutual distrust which exists between management and staff. Despite an "open door" policy, some of the line staff, most of whom have long tenure, view their managers as closed minded, dictatorial and intimidating. Managers view some staff as resistant to change, obstructive and vindictive.
The Grand Jury determined that these problems were of such severity that unless immediate corrective actions were undertaken, that essential mandated services to children would have been jeopardized.[15]

Fiscal concerns and political maneuvering contribute to the crisis.

In June of 1989, District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry was told that 41.3 percent of the caseworker positions in the Children and Family Services Division were vacant, and that the "tremendous amount of stress that leads to worker burnout" contributes to the "rapid turnover" of social workers.

The former mayor was informed again in November of 1989, and once again in January of 1990 that the Division was experiencing serious staff shortages. Nevertheless, on June 28, 1990, the District of Columbia instituted a hiring freeze that barred filling the vacancies.

As of February of 1991, 107 of a total of 239 social worker positions in the Division remained vacant.[16]

But the problems associated with high employee turnover are not limited to child protective workers, extending to other related fields as well.

In South Carolina, entry-level foster care licensing workers, who make $19,375 a year, are the agency's lowest-paid caseworkers and have one of the highest turnover rates in the agency. And seven or eight out of every 10 prospective foster parents drop out during 10 hours of training before they are licensed.

"I think the perception of a lot of [Department of Social Services employees] . . . is that if you do that for a while, you can get a real job," says Lynne Noble, a University of South Carolina employee under contract to write training programs for South Carolina foster care workers and foster parents through the Center for Child and Family Studies.[17]

The high turnover in child protective agencies is symptomatic of more complex problems which have long been documented, according to some professionals. Writing in Child Welfare, a periodical put out by the Child Welfare League of America, Susan J. Wells, Ph.D., Director of Research for the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, Washington, D.C. defines the problem in a broader context:

Report after report describes the high turnover rate of staff, the lag time between knowledge development and use in the field, the archaic information systems in many agencies, and the feeling of powerlessness many administrators voice. To contribute to the improvement of CPS, research must take a more rigorous approach to evaluation of management and administration. Both process and outcome are critical. The personnel crisis (e.g., insufficient number of staff members, high turnover, insufficient training) appears to have a devastating effect on the quality of services currently provided. . .[18]

There may more fundamental issues driving the high turnover in the field, among them the erosion of some deeply-cherished myths, suggests George Frank in an early examination of the treatment needs of children in foster care. Frank identified the child welfare system as one in which "the massive employment of social workers without Master's degrees in social work, often with no type of social work education, large caseloads, infrequent interviews, and inadequate diagnosis" were among the characteristic elements.

Infrequent and poorly focused work with families, and "a peculiar blindness to the child's distress until he or she did something bizarre or antisocial," coupled with a tendency toward the blaming or rejection of a child were identified. But most distressingly, Frank explained:

There seems to be a myth that the placement experience is somehow good for the child; even when it blatantly is obvious that this is not so, social workers frequently report that the setting is meeting the child's needs. Another problem is rapid turnover among workers, so that often there is no continuity of treatment; perhaps this is a function of the myth not holding up over time.[19]
Far from limited to the front lines, the constant turnover extends itself to the top of the bureaucratic pyramid. As David Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America recently explained during Congressional hearings: "There is a lack of stable leadership in child welfare. In the last 2 years there has been a 50 percent turnover among State directors of child welfare programs. That is outrageous."[20]

System proponents with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo point to high caseloads, increasingly difficult family circumstances, drug usage and other outside factors to account for the problems that ail the child welfare and foster care systems.

But the problems of high turnover and inexperienced staff have long been documented. During the 1970s, turnover in the field of child welfare was reported in industry publications to be in the range of 50 to 100 percent.[21]

A 1976 study identified caseworkers as "prone to changing their jobs after relatively short periods of involvement with their clients."[22]

What of the effect all of this has on the children? For Jesus, a nine-year-old Los Angeles County boy who was "beaten, sodomized, burned on his genitals and nearly drowned by his foster parents" after caseworkers failed to visit him in his foster home for four months, it means a life spent as a spastic paraplegic.[23]

For hundreds of thousands of other children it means long-term, and in many cases permanent separation from loving families as they languish in inappropriate placements with scarce hope of returning to their families.

For Jeffrey Harden, Elisa Izquierdo, and the countless hundreds of other children in genuine need of protection, it meant a fate far more permanent.

Copyright 1996 - 2003, Rick Thoma

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Last Updated July 8, 2003