As humans, we all need some measure of stability in our lives. Children and youth who become known to child welfare often lack and desperately need it. In fact, when we step into a child’s world, stability is one of the most important things we can provide to him or her. That is especially true during a global pandemic in which many aspects of day-to-day life are already being disrupted.
While we spend a lot of time thinking about stability in the context of placement, we haven’t yet cracked the proverbial nut of ensuring the same level of case worker stability. And despite the known correlation between the stability of the child welfare workforce and outcomes for families, case workers often become yet another source of uncertainty and unpredictability.
By stabilizing the workforce, we can contribute to achieving critical outcomes – including reducing the number of kids in care, shortening the length of time in care and keeping more children safe at home. Of course, much like placement stability, workforce stability brings many challenges.
The Family First Act is widely acknowledged to represent a sea change in child welfare – from reimagining the front door and transforming funding to redesigning the service system itself. It’s worth noting that everything in this legislation relies heavily on a workforce that is well trained, well supported and – yes – stable. That’s because the front line is absolutely essential to achieving the desired shift from secondary and tertiary to primary prevention.
Data and research have confirmed that high staff turnover delays intervention, prolongs reunification and suspends permanency outcomes. Beyond the quantitative research, youth have offered important insights on the impact of staff turnover on their well-being, including reinforcing the lack of trust and stability all too common to them.
We can create thoughtful prevention plans, invest in an array of innovative services and collaborate with other systems. But if we don’t invest in our workforce, we will inevitably fall short – and, by extension, so will the children and families we serve.
Child welfare staff retention has been a persistent challenge. States and jurisdictions have been working hard to create stability within the workforce through an array of activities, including enhancing training opportunities, creating a culture of safety and implementing supervision models with increased focus on coaching.
The field now faces an opportunity to create the system we all aspire to. How might that look? As with any successful practice shift, the work should align with key principles and take a multi-pronged approach. Key principles include:
- Engaging with the workforce to co-create solutions and making it safe for them to offer ongoing feedback,
- Ensuring that any changes that affect the workforce are reflected in the agency’s practice model and policy and
- Arming the workforce with necessary tools to support their success – from training and technology to coaching and supervision.
Without question child welfare is complex, often emotionally taxing work. However, those of us who have been honored to do it know the rewards – including witnessing the strength, resilience and perseverance of children, families and co-workers as we unite to achieve better outcomes. We can improve outcomes for the families we work with and on behalf of – by developing and maintaining an operational approach that fully engages the workforce.
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