Listening to the Voices of Children in Foster Care: Youths Speak out about Child Welfare Workforce Turnover and Selection

By Strolin-Goltzman, Jessica; Kollar, Sharon et al. | Social Work, January 2010 | Go to article overview
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Listening to the Voices of Children in Foster Care: Youths Speak out about Child Welfare Workforce Turnover and Selection


Strolin-Goltzman, Jessica, Kollar, Sharon, Trinkle, Joanne, Social Work


Child welfare workforce turnover rates are estimated to be between 23 percent and 60 percent annually across private and public child welfare agencies (Cyphers, 2001; Drake & Yadama, 1996; Jayaratne & Chess, 1984; Jayaratne, Himle, & Chess, 1991). In New York state (NYS), approximately 60 percent of public child welfare agencies have suffered from high turnover for at least one year since 2000. High turnover is defined as an annual turnover rate exceeding 25 percent. In 2004, the rates of workforce turnover in high-turnover agencies ranged from 27 percent to 94 percent (New York State Office of Children and Family Services Bureau of Training, 2004). Despite the growing literature on the etiology of workforce turnover in child welfare (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2003; Balfour & Neff, 1993; Barak, Nissly, & Levin, 2001; Child Welfare Training Institute, 1997; Dickinson & Perry, 2002; Ellett, 2000; Ellett & E1lett, 2004; Ellett, Ellett, & Rugutt, 2003; Graef & Potter, 2002; Ireland, Smith, & Thornberry, 2002; Strolin-Goltzman et al., 2008), few studies exist on the effects of turnover.

Turnover of public child welfare workers affects a wide range of children and families; however, foster care youths are exceptionally vulnerable to the activities of public child welfare caseworkers, because caseworkers are responsible for their safety, stability, well-being, and permanence.The few studies that have researched the association between turnover and child welfare outcomes found that when caseworkers leave, it touches the lives of the youths in their care emotionally and physically. For instance, in one study, researchers looked at the influences on multiple foster care placements and found a positive association between the turnover of caseworkers and the movement of youths into foster care (Pardeck, 1984).

Most recently, Flower, McDonald, and Sumski (2005) found that children with more than one worker are almost 60 percent less likely to be placed in a permanent situation within Adoption and Safe Families Act timeframes compared with those with only one worker. There are many reasons this might be so. Perhaps the cases lagged for a period of time during the hiring process, or perhaps information about cases was not recorded thoroughly. Both possibilities would be consequences of diminished human capital resulting from workforce turnover.

Studies have also found that agency investment in workforce standards--including stability and experience of caseworkers, low caseloads, and high frequencies of contact with youths--result in significantly better rates of discharge within the first two years of foster care placement (George, 1990). Shapiro (1976) found that more experienced caseworkers were more likely to discharge youths within the first year of placement. In systems in which turnover is high and the average length of employment is two years, inexperienced workers are the norm (Gansle & Ellett, 2002). Despite the availability of casework services that facilitate safety, permanency, and healthy outcomes, many children may either not be receiving these services and placements or may be getting them much later than they might have if they had been served by stable organizational systems with experienced caseworkers.

All of the aforementioned studies provide some indirect evidence of the negative effects of turnover on children and families in the child welfare system; however, the evidence presented in them is outdated and insufficient. Furthermore, studies publicizing the voices of those who are directly served by the system are nonexistent. Perhaps the best illustrations for understanding the consequences of child welfare workforce turnover come from youths themselves, who either fall through the cracks as a result of systemwide workforce instability or succeed despite the costs of an unstable system. The present study provides new insight into the effects of caseworker turnover by asking consumers of the child welfare system (youths) about their experiences.

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