Researchers tackle turnover in child welfare staffing

Alice Lieberman

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LAWRENCE — In Kansas, the average child welfare professional stays in the field for two years, while the average supervisor only stays three years. Researchers at the University of Kansas are working to find out why turnover is so prevalent in what can be a challenging, stressful line of work and help stabilize the workforce, which will help provide better service to families.

Alice Lieberman, professor of social welfare, and Michelle Levy, research associate at the KU School of Social Welfare, are co-principal investigators of a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the Children’s Bureau, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Now in its fourth year, the grant has funded the Kansas Workforce Initiative, an effort to strengthen the child welfare field within the state and beyond. The project also yielded a report on factors that drive private child welfare workers to leave the field.

The article, published in the Administration in Social Work journal, surveyed more than 150 child welfare workers about their job attitudes and intentions to leave the field. Lieberman and Levy, along with co-author John Poertner, explored the relationship of job satisfaction, organizational commitment and conflict between work and family to workers’ intention to leave the field.

Work-family conflict, or the job interfering with an employee’s personal life, was found to be a significant indicator of an individual’s intention to quit. High case loads, late hours, having to take work home and similar factors are a large reason why annual turnover rates in the field are as high as 30 to 40 percent in the United States.

“There is a lot of talk about high case loads, but it is more than just that,” Levy said. “The nature of this work can be very stressful. Workers need to be very flexible.”

Numerous states, including Kansas, have turned to privatized child welfare systems in which the state contracts with community agencies to provide services in hopes of improving outcomes for children and families. However, there was very little research about turnover and retention in such systems.

The authors found that job satisfaction and quality of supervision employees receive also heavily influences a practitioner’s intention to leave the field.

“These finding have important implications for supervisors and agencies working to retain child welfare workers,” the authors wrote. “As the demands of child welfare work and the use of technologies increasingly blur the boundaries between work and home, there is both the potential for increased work-family conflict as well as opportunities for new tools for balancing demands. With a growing number of states using performance-based contracts, it is increasingly important to understand factors that impact turnover among this segment of the child welfare workforce.”

In addition to publishing research, Lieberman and Levy are developing methods to help train supervisors and give students, as well as those entering and working in child welfare, more realistic expectations of what the field entails.

“A great deal of evidence exists to support the tremendous importance of really good supervision in retaining social workers in child welfare agencies,” Lieberman said. “This is important because families do better when they can remain with the same worker. Thus, anything that we can add to the extant literature on the supervisory skills that matter most — and the means to deliver those skills, via training — is ultimately going to impact the well-being of families and kids in a very significant way.”

The researchers have developed a series of videos detailing the three most important things supervisors can do to keep child welfare workers on the job. The videos cover task assistance, social and emotional support, and interpersonal interaction. Each roughly five-minute video addresses ways in which a supervisor can assist workers in dealing with difficult parts of their job, whether it be working with parents who have had children removed from the home, adoption or other family services. With the high rate of turnover in the field, people often are promoted to supervisory roles without any previous training. New supervisors are often promoted from the ranks and can be unprepared for their new role, Levy said.

The researchers are also developing a “realistic job expectations” video as well, to be shown to students and people entering the field. In the video, child welfare workers discuss the challenges, rewards and reasons why they stay in the field. Those who leave the field have often reported finding a different reality than what they expected upon working in child welfare.

“We’re trying to give a better understanding of what this job entails,” Levy said. “It’s not sugar-coated by any means. We hope this can be something that balances out the understanding of what this field is all about and helps students or job candidates to make an informed decision about entering this field.”

The video is set to premiere this month, both on YouTube and websites of child welfare agencies throughout the state.

To help better prepare students before they enter the field full-time, KU researchers have also held Child Welfare Days at colleges throughout the state. The event paired students with working professionals, attorneys, judges and other experts.

“We’re working to develop a prepared, supported and stable workforce. Those are the three goals of this grant,” Levy said.

Tue, 01/17/2012


Mike Krings

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