Supervising Child Protective Services Caseworkers
Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Children's Bureau., Caliber Associates. Salus, Marsha K.|
|Year Published: 2004|
Recruitment and Retention
Ensuring the safety and well-being of abused and neglected children is, in part, based on securing and maintaining an experienced and well-trained workforce who are committed to achieving the goals of a child welfare program. Undermining this vital infrastructure is the high rate of turnover of child welfare staff nationwide.55 As service demands placed on the child welfare system continue to increase, the need for an experienced and competent workforce becomes even more imperative. The annual turnover of child welfare caseworkers is between 30 and 40 percent, with the average duration of employment less than 2 years.56 This results in uncovered caseloads, discontinuity of service to families, increased administrative costs, and low morale of existing staff.57 Because of the deleterious impact of high turnover, it is critical to identify strategies that promote recruitment and retention. This chapter examines innovative recruitment strategies, causes for staff turnover, and factors that influence staff retention.
Recruiting a Competent Workforce
The most frequent complaint with regard to recruiting and hiring staff is the lack of a competent talent pool. This can result in employers investing valuable resources into building productivity and retaining employees that should not have been hired in the first place.58 The figure below illustrates common reasons for staff turnover as well as problems in retaining and recruiting child protective services (CPS) caseworkers.
|Causes of and Practices to Prevent Child Welfare Caseworker Vacancies59|
Causes of Caseworker Turnover
Practices to Improve Recruitment and Retention
Additional hindrances include:
- Qualified prospective employees being lured to higher paying, more prestigious jobs, while those remaining typically lack experience and commitment to the child welfare field;
- An imbalance between the salary offered and the job demands;
- A negative public image of the child welfare field;
- A lack of funds to mount effective recruiting efforts.60
Some of these obstacles are difficult to overcome and require innovative approaches. The following are some promising recruitment and retention strategies:
- Targeting diverse and local media for recruitment efforts;
- Increasing staff visibility in the community (e.g., participate in community groups and on volunteer boards);
- Advertising on the Internet and cable TV;
- Ensuring the agency's Web site includes more employment-specific information;
- Presenting at colleges and employment fairs (e.g., job fairs at schools of social work);
- Preparing candidates for the reality of the job they will be doing so they will not be disappointed later (e.g., show a videotape depicting the less glamorous parts of the job or have prospective employees directly observe typical job tasks).61
In addition to the marketing of child welfare careers in educational institutions, establishing agency and social work education partnerships is extremely beneficial. Kentucky has developed a program to create a certificate in child welfare for undergraduate social work students.62 Child welfare agencies typically have lower staff turnover rates when they hire staff with social work degrees, particularly if some positions require a graduate degree in social work. Because of their internships and coursework, such as classes on research, organizational development, and family-centered practice, social work graduates are better prepared than other candidates and more likely to:
- Make thorough case assessments and permanency plans;
- Deal more effectively with the complexity of problems faced in child welfare practice;
- Perform better on the agency's quality assurance measures.63
Secondary Trauma, Compassion Fatigue, and Burnout
Additional factors leading to staff turnover are secondary trauma, compassion fatigue, and burnout.64 Individuals who work directly with or have exposure to trauma victims on a regular basis may be as likely to experience traumatic stress symptoms and disorders as the victims. Because CPS caseworkers are directly exposed to the child's and family's traumas on a daily basis, they may suffer from secondary trauma.65 Secondary trauma is defined as "the natural and consequent behaviors and emotions resulting from knowledge about a traumatizing event experienced by a significant other. It is the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person."66 The kind of exhaustion that can result has been seen by some as a special kind of burnout called "compassion fatigue."67
Research in the area of secondary trauma has identified important issues. Professionals can exhibit the same range of symptoms as the victims with whom they are working. Like the victims, the severity and longevity of the symptoms vary from individual to individual. There is an increased likelihood of these professionals exhibiting symptoms if they have previously experienced trauma themselves. Additionally, female caseworkers are more likely to experience symptoms than their male counterparts.68
Some of the signs and symptoms of secondary trauma include:
- A decreased level of energy;
- A sense of no time for oneself;
- An increased disconnection from loved ones;
- Social withdrawal;
- An increased sensitivity to violence, threats, or fear, as well as the opposite—decreased sensitivity, cynicism, generalized despair, and hopelessness.69
Strategies for Dealing with Secondary Trauma, Compassion Fatigue, and Burnout
To avoid burnout and to help caseworkers deal effectively with the effects of secondary trauma, supervisors can:
Lack of Job Satisfaction
A lack of job satisfaction may be felt by either experienced caseworkers or new caseworkers. Experienced caseworkers may feel that their work is not sufficiently intellectually stimulating, professionally challenging, or financially rewarding.71 As is the case in many professional arenas, experienced caseworkers sometimes simply tire of going through the same thing, day after day. New staff may experience a lack of job satisfaction because the job is not the "right fit." Some want opportunity for greater financial reward or want to work in a setting they believe is more highly regarded. Others may experience feelings of incompetence or feel overwhelmed. Work overload can lead caseworkers to fail to complete work and experience a lack of concrete results from their efforts. This can cause staff to feel like failures when, in fact, the issue may be related to inadequate time, training, or resources. In addition, the perceived ambiguity in expectations and demands can lead to job dissatisfaction.
Promoting Staff Retention
Staff retention has been an important focus of agency and supervisory efforts. This issue goes beyond staff stability and job satisfaction because some evidence suggests that high turnover rates and staffing shortages can affect children's safety and permanency by:
- Delaying the timeliness of assessments and investigations;
- Providing insufficient time to conduct the types of home visits necessary to assess children's safety or to ensure safe and permanent placements;
- Disrupting the continuity of services;
- Limiting the frequency of caseworker visits with children and families;
- Having to frequently reevaluate or conduct safety, health, or educational assessments because of continual turnover or insufficient information left in the case files by the previous caseworker who was poorly trained or overworked.72
The importance of retaining qualified caseworkers is exemplified in the most recent reauthorization of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (P. L. 108-36), which authorizes grants to States for child abuse and neglect prevention and treatment programs. The most recent reauthorization included funding to States for the specific purpose of improving staff retention.73
There are a number of factors that contribute to staff retention, as discussed below.
Quality supervision has a strong influence on caseworkers' decisions to continue in child welfare. Without adequate supervision, caseworkers may lack direction in their efforts and become lost in a maze of demands and responsibilities. The supervisor is in a pivotal position in the agency. He or she is the person who usually best understands the responsibilities and demands on the caseworker, backs up decisions and casework activities, and serves as a buffer and advocate for caseworkers and clients. Caseworkers may not terminate employment because of a particular supervisor, but the supervisor makes a considerable difference in the caseworker's ability to manage the demands and responsibilities of the job. The qualities, attributes, and characteristics—which reflect a combination of personality traits and skills—often found in successful supervisors include:
- Demonstrating professional competence;
- Possessing effective management and leadership skills;
- Showing concern for his or her caseworkers' welfare;
- Recognizing caseworkers when they perform well in their job;
- Helping caseworkers complete difficult tasks;
- Being warm and friendly when a caseworker experiences problems and listening to work-related problems;
- Being accessible to caseworkers;
- Being knowledgeable about the child welfare system and casework practice.
Relationship with Peers
Caseworkers who stay in child welfare have a strong investment in their relationships with colleagues. Frequently, these relationships are very strong and a vital source of support. The following are some benefits of peer support include:
- Someone with whom to share work-related problems;
- Assistance in getting the job done;
- Respect, recognition, and validation;
- Socialization opportunities.
It also supports the benefits of a cohesive work team, as discussed in Chapter 4, "Building the Foundation for Effective Unit Performance."
Supportive Work Climate
The organizational climate within the agency has a strong impact on retention. Naturally, most caseworkers enter child welfare with an interest in working with children and families. When guided and encouraged, this interest develops into a sense of mission and commitment to protecting children and strengthening families.
Some of the climate factors influencing staff retention include:
- Agency recognition and reward programs;
- Appreciation of caseworkers' dedication and hard work;
- A work environment that is flexible;
- Positive physical surroundings;
- Training opportunities to enhance knowledge and skills;
- Autonomy for decisions and practice.
Individuals who remain in child welfare experience significantly higher levels of satisfaction with their job if they feel it is the "right fit," experience personal feelings of accomplishment, and are provided with opportunities for personal and professional growth.
- The right fit. The suitability of a particular job assignment is an important factor that caseworkers consider when deciding to continue their employment, especially in locating the right program or unit, finding a match among their skills and interests, and knowing the specific job responsibilities.
- Personal feelings of accomplishment. Caseworkers who stay in child welfare feel they can positively influence the lives of the clients they serve. They feel that their interventions with children and families are necessary, meaningful, and fulfilling.
- Opportunities for personal and professional growth. The provision of inservice training, which improves caseworkers' knowledge and skills and enhances staff performance, is important in accomplishing this. Supervisors should be creative and consistently seek opportunities for personal and professional growth for themselves and their staff.
Staff Retention Strategies
The following are examples of staff retention strategies that have been successful:
Some of the issues and interventions discussed in this chapter require systemic changes. However, many issues can be addressed within the supervisor-caseworker relationship and within the operation of the unit. To change the tide of turnover, each supervisor should look to himself or herself, examine their relationships with their staff, and consider the functioning of their unit. Supervisors then can identify new and innovative strategies to retain competent and committed staff.
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