Child Welfare Worker Characteristics and Job Satisfaction: A National Study

By Barth, Richard P.; Lloyd, E. Christopher et al. | Social Work, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Child Welfare Worker Characteristics and Job Satisfaction: A National Study


Barth, Richard P., Lloyd, E. Christopher, Christ, Sharon L., Chapman, Mimi V., Dickinson, Nancy S., Social Work


Concern over the quality of child welfare work appears regularly in the popular and scholarly press. The child welfare worker role involves dealing with high levels of uncertainty, danger, and emotion (Gustavsson & MacEachron, 2002; Regehr, Hemsworth, Leslie, Howe, & Chau, 2004). Some members of this workforce have educational preparation for the work that they are doing, but most do not (American Public Human Services Association [APHSA], 2005). The General Accounting Office (GAO) (GAO, 2003) has documented the difficulties agencies face in trying to attract and retain a qualified workforce.

The work that child welfare workers do is undeniably important, and there is significant demand for it. According to the Children's Bureau, using 2003 data, child welfare agencies receive nearly 500,000 calls a month concerning child maltreatment, 50,000 reports of maltreatment are accepted by child welfare services for evaluation each week (almost 3 million a year), and about 1 million cases are opened for child welfare intervention annually (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005). These numbers are over and above the roughly 550,000 children who have ongoing involvement in foster care each year, and a larger number formerly in foster care and now adopted or in guardianships.

Certainly, child welfare workers have difficult duties to fulfill under less-than-optimal working conditions, including low salaries, poor work environments, incomplete training, and inadequate supervision (GAO, 2003). Yet many child welfare workers are able to manage the challenges of their work and have a sense of satisfaction (Annie E. Casey Foundation [AECF], 2003; Rycraft, 1994). This article describes characteristics associated with reported job satisfaction among a national sample of child welfare workers.

In recent years, policymakers and scholars have attempted to study child welfare workers and their work on a larger scale (AECF, 2003; GAO, 2003).A few of these efforts have been aimed at testing education and training interventions that may strengthen the child welfare workforce (for example, Fox, Miller, & Barbee, 2003). Most studies have examined the characteristics and perceptions of child welfare workers, especially as they relate to such outcomes as turnover and retention (Dickinson & Perry, 2002), burnout (Anderson, 2000), and job satisfaction and organizational commitment (Glisson & Durick, 1988). The U.S. Children's Bureau recently funded eight university five-year demonstration grants to test ways of improving the child welfare workforce, primarily by strengthening child welfare worker recruitment and retention (Administration on Children, Youth and Families, 2003). The APHSA (2005) has compiled data from 42 states to better understand the child welfare workforce. Georgia, Texas, and Milwaukee County are among many that have initiated workforce studies (Ellett, Ellett, & Rugutt, 2003; Flower, McDonald, & Sumski, 2005; Scannapieco & Connell-Carrick, 2003). Other studies have focused on the experiences of graduates from social work programs with specializations in child welfare (for example, Dickinson & Perry, 2002). These reports typically include discussion of minimum preparation and training and describe how child welfare worker characteristics and their experiences in agencies blend together to affect job satisfaction and employment stability.

Research about the child welfare workforce varies in rigor and is almost always specific to a single locality. An earlier review of child welfare workers' characteristics and work environments (AECF, 2003) observed a marked lack of quality data describing workers or their satisfaction. Moreover, early research on workers (for example, Daley, 1979) may no longer be accurate because of recent changes in child welfare services and in the child welfare workforce. Hence, questions remain largely unanswered about the general population of child welfare workers and what contributes to their job satisfaction. …

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