Academic journal article Child Welfare

From Classroom to Caseload: Transition Experiences of Frontline Child Welfare Workers

Academic journal article Child Welfare

From Classroom to Caseload: Transition Experiences of Frontline Child Welfare Workers

Article excerpt

Child welfare is among the most challenging areas of the social service sector, particularly for frontline workers including child protection investigators (CPIs) and case managers (CMs). As the job titles suggest, CPIs respond to child maltreatment allegations, identify the presence of maltreatment, and initially determine child safety. CMs work with children and families in cases of substantiated maltreatment to ensure children's safety, permanency, and well-being. Challenges of high caseloads, insufficient time with families, and a limited focus on child safety contribute to turnover. For example, the Government Accountability Office's (GAO, 2003) evaluation of the child welfare workforce found large caseloads coupled with high turnover translated to remaining workers having insufficient time to conduct timely investigations, establish relationships with families, and conduct frequent home visits, ultimately negatively impacting compliance with federal safety and permanency outcomes. National rates of child welfare turnover typically range from 20-50%, with the highest rates within a worker's first three years (Chenot, Benton, & Kim, 2009; Smith, 2005). Turnover is expensive because each child welfare job vacancy costs approximately $10,000 (in 1995 dollars), once considering separation, replacement, training, and performance differential costs (Graef & Hill, 2000).

Despite the GAO's (2003) prioritization of workforce retention and newly hired workers' heightened turnover vulnerability, few studies have explored workers' experiences with training and transitioning to the workforce. Worker training and transition to independent caseloads are important, because if we can identify the strengths and difficulties that workers initially face in the workforce, policy and practice can adapt training and transition processes to accommodate workers' needs and create a sustaining workplace environment.

Theoretical Framework and Literature Review

Lipsky's (1980) framework of street-level bureaucracy may help to explain new frontline workers' transition experiences. Lipsky (1980) suggests frontline workers' actions in their everyday work are important because they determine whether policy is implemented as intended. If a policy states a worker must visit a child within 24 hours of an allegation, for example, a worker decides whether the visit occurs. Workers operating as street-level bureaucrats face barriers in completing their job responsibilities (Lipsky, 1980). Resource limitations, time pressures, and conflicting goals create a discrepancy between practice ideals and reality. To survive, workers develop coping mechanisms, termed here as practice strategies, such as focusing on clients with the greatest possibility for success, rationing services, or defining achievable goals (Lipsky, 1980). Literature documents that over time CPIs and CMs face Lipsky's (1980) barriers in their work (e.g., GAO, 2003; Smith & Donovan, 2003). Less is known about how training experiences and transition processes may influence facing these barriers and developing practice strategies.

Resource Limitations

Extensive literature attests that CPIs and CMs cannot access the necessary human resources to complete their jobs effectively. Workers face excessive workloads, staffing shortages, and limited training opportunities (e.g., DePanfilis & Zlotnik, 2008; Fox, Miller, & Barbee, 2003). Workers frequently note excessive workloads when considering job dissatisfaction, burnout, and turnover (Mor Barak, Nissly, & Levin, 2001). Likewise, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (2006) found 75% of former child welfare workers reported excessive caseloads, often requiring unpaid, overtime work. The perpetual cycle of turnover and subsequent staff shortages deplete resources and, ultimately, affect client outcomes. Mounting caseloads and few mentors or supervisors leave workers with little time to establish relationships with families, assess child safety, and make thoughtful permanency decisions (GAO, 2003). …

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