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Workforce Issues Continue to Plague Child Welfare

from Summer 2007 Adoptalk

by Diane Riggs, NACAC staff

In testimony published May 15, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) informed a congressional subcommittee that the “high number of child welfare cases per worker” is one of child welfare’s biggest challenges. Yet states are doing little to address issues such as high turnover and other factors that adversely affect caseload size. As the GAO study infers, until federal and state governments take an active role in addressing the child welfare workforce crisis, outcomes for children will not improve.

Workforce Issues

The child welfare workforce is full of committed child advocates who are trying to focus on children’s best interests. Unfortunately, many workers have not been properly equipped for the rigors of the job and work conditions may further hinder their ability to serve children and families well. Below are some key issues that plague the child welfare workforce.*

High Caseloads

Since Florida privatized child welfare services, Palm Beach County caseloads rose from 20 per worker in 2004 to 35 in 2007. One Indiana county reported that its two case managers were saddled with about 50 cases each, 33 more than the state target of 17. In Texas this spring, a county worker quit after her caseload rose past 60, four times the Child Welfare League of America’s recommended limit of 15.

Palm Beach County attributes some of its caseload stress to a rise in the number of children in care, coupled with the lump payment model of privatization. Though there are nearly now 300 more children in care than when Child and Family Services signed its state contract, the agency is allotted the same funding as before.

When Children’s Rights filed suit against the Georgia Department of Human Services in 2002 (Kenny A. v. Perdue), workers in Fulton and DeKalb Counties (greater Atlanta) were expected to handle 35 to 50+ cases. As the complaint charged, “Because of these excessive caseloads, it is impossible for caseworkers to adequately monitor the safety and care of the foster children assigned to them, and foster children…regularly go six months or more without a visit from their caseworker.”

Worker Turnover

Some employee turnover is inevitable, but many child welfare turnover rates are astronomical. About 40 percent of Palm Beach County workers leave each year. In Plano, Texas nearly half of foster care and adoption workers resigned between February and May 2007. From 2003 to 2004, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin had turnover rates of 34 to 67 percent.

Many of the factors that lead to high turnover are obvious. Caseloads are too high, pay is too low, and the work is too stressful. Maryjane Link, executive director of Children Awaiting Parents, Inc. in New York, notes that individual cases are harder than they used to be. Many workers, she says, have caseloads “full of adolescents who have been in care too long, moved too many times, and still have connections to their birth family.”

Morale is another problem. “Staff morale is a key determinant of success in any organization,” reported Philadelphia Mayor Street’s Child Welfare Review Panel in its May 31, 2007 report. Regrettably, “most observers find that morale at DHS is not high at present.”

Aside from creating more work for those who stay at the agency, turnover can be devastating for children in care who desperately need constancy. In a review of Milwaukee County’s turnover situation, researchers found that permanency was inversely correlated with high turnover. Of children who entered care and exited to permanency between January 2003 and September 2004, 74 percent had just one worker. As the number of workers increased, the likelihood of permanence plummeted—17.5 percent of children with two workers found permanence, 5.2 percent with three; 2.2 percent with four; and .1 percent with six or seven.

Too Little Training

To widen the pool of potential workers, many states have relaxed education requirements. According to a 2003 GAO report, fewer than 15 percent of child welfare agencies nationwide require caseworkers to have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work—even though the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) recommends that all child welfare workers have a BSW or MSW from an accredited school of social work.

Given changing federal and state laws, plus the evolution of child welfare practice, workers need training both to keep up their licenses and gain needed skills. Yet in Clark County (Las Vegas), Nevada, an independent December 2006 review found that training was practically nonexistent. In 2004, resources were so scarce in Mississippi that new caseworkers spent months on the job without any training.

Even when training is available, however, workers may not feel they can go. After all, no one will be doing their work, and the state may not reimburse the training cost. According to NASW, the level of reimbursement has steadily declined in the past few years. When time and money are tight, and agencies do not prioritize training, workers will not take advantage of educational opportunities.

Inconsistent Supervision

“In order to implement and sustain positive change,” asserted Casey Family Programs’ president William Bell at the May 15 congressional hearing, “competent executive and mid-level leadership must be in place.” Sadly, due to high worker turnover, some workers are promoted to management positions without child welfare or management training.

Authored by co-chair Carol Wilson Spigner, the Philadelphia Child Welfare Review Panel report criticizes the “pervasive theme of randomness in DHS practice.” The report notes that the “absence of appropriate supervisory and managerial capacity has allowed such random responses to flourish,” a problem that “undermines the ability to develop and maintain a highly skilled workforce.”

“Managing requires a different set of skills,” Spigner told reporters, “and there has not been an investment to help people acquire them. There are people in key positions who don’t know how to manage.”

Inadequate Pay

Another factor that plays into high turnover rates is compensation. As Madeline McClure—head of a Dallas-based child advocacy organization—said, “We can’t expect to retain these workers when they can go to the teaching profession, still work with children, get paid 40 percent more, and not have as much stress.”

According the 2003 GAO report, national salary data confirms that caseworkers earn even less than teachers—a job well known for poor pay. A 2006 study by NASW’s Center for Workforce Studies reports that worker pay is often lower in private nonprofits than public agencies, and lowest of all in rural areas.

Low entry pay—in some areas $10,000 or more per year less than other entry-level jobs—does not just create fiscal hardships, it perpetuates the public perception that child welfare workers are doing a job that is not worthwhile. When realities of personal financial stress and feelings of low worth collide, many workers simply quit. Others will never apply.

Job Pressures

When veteran Ohio child welfare worker Boni Frederick brought a baby to visit his birth mother last year, she was stabbed and beaten to death. Her death spurred the passage of worker safety legislation, and brought home to thousands of workers the real danger they may face.

Only workers in criminal justice report more safety issues (67 percent) than child welfare and family workers (52 percent). Unfortunately, the NASW workforce report suggests that child welfare and family workers were least likely to feel that their safety issues were adequately addressed (only 61 percent, versus 84 percent of workers in medical health).

“The pressures of child welfare work are familiar and weighty,” contends Philadelphia’s Child Welfare Review Panel, “as conflictual situations and secondary trauma erode one’s spirit and effectiveness.” Even when not confronted with tragic cases, workers’ day-to-day interactions with what Spigner terms “resistant families” is exceedingly stressful. Contact with victims of abuse and neglect, the court system, and even some prospective parents can test their patience too.

New laws, even when well-intentioned, may further stretch workers. The Adoption and Safe Families Act’s tighter permanency timelines added pressure to close cases more quickly, and the adoption incentive program led to charges that states are trying to hurry adoptions so they can collect bonus money.


To address workforce issues, states frequently hire more caseworkers. Indiana’s Department of Children’s Services, for example, hopes to reduce caseloads by hiring 400 caseworkers and 75 supervisors by next year. The action is a good start, but it is not a complete solution. As Julie Farber—Children’s Rights’ policy director—notes, “It takes more than six months to recruit, hire, and train a new caseworker.” If agencies worked harder to retain workers, they could save time and money.

Children’s Rights and the National Center for Youth Law (in Improving the Child Welfare Workforce: Lessons Learned from Class Action Litigation) recommend that agencies retain more workers by:

  • establishing caseload standards based on a careful analysis of all the different tasks workers must perform;
  • reducing turnover by offering incentives (reasonable caseloads, pay, training) and making sure that new hires are placed in jobs suited to their strengths;
  • increasing the amount of accessible training that promotes best practices and teaches workers essential skills. NASW suggests that child welfare agencies partner with schools of social work;
  • creating and evaluating desired supervisory and leadership competencies. Instead of simply setting a ratio of workers per supervisor, agencies should set clear expectations for supervisory practice and also let workers know how they can advance to a supervisory post;
  • offering workers adequate pay—enough to promote a sense that child welfare workers are valued civil servants;
  • keeping workers safer, by providing cell phones, positioning law enforcement personnel at the office, teaming workers on difficult cases, etc.

More money and fewer cases alone will not solve the child welfare workforce crisis. Children will not attain substantially better outcomes until there is a radical shift in the very culture of child welfare. To ensure that children who come in contact with the child welfare system receive the best service possible, Farber says, “we must have qualified, trained, well-supervised, adequately paid staff with reasonable caseloads in a general agency culture that supports good practice and outcomes.”


Like the children and families they serve, child welfare workers face many challenges. To resolve the ongoing workforce crisis, people in positions of power must approach reform on many levels. Leaders, from federal and state officials to individual case managers, must stand up and fight to make certain child welfare workers are fully equipped to more ably assist the vulnerable children and families whom they serve on the state’s behalf.

*Jurisdictions named here are referenced only to illustrate problems that exist across the U.S.


North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC)
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St. Paul, MN 55114
phone: 651-644-3036
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