Legal Considerations of Understaffing Child Welfare Departments

By Pollack, Daniel | Policy & Practice, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Legal Considerations of Understaffing Child Welfare Departments


Pollack, Daniel, Policy & Practice


Managing a human service agency, particularly a child welfare department, is challenging enough when it's fully staffed. In today's economy, with budget cuts, high staff turnover, and other forced reductions, the agency's resourcefulness and mettle are really put to the test.

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Staff cuts maybe a result of souring economic conditions, legislative or executive branch decisions, or a response to reprioritizing of governmental efforts. Call it what you will--retooling, rightsizing, reorganizing, re-engineering, or downsizing. Whatever term you choose, today's restructuring may result in understaffing.

Secondary trauma and staff turn-over are well-known concerns in child welfare and human services. So, too, is the desire on the part of administrators and managers to ensure that their staffs are focusing on top priority cases and goals. What administrators and managers try so artfully to do is to understand and utilize the capabilities of their agency's resources, both human and material. Workload planning means matching people with the agency's target goals. This is, of course, not a one-time event. It is a continual process. It involves determining the staff's availability and skills and projecting the number of hours each person has available to work. People and their skill sets must be sufficient to handle projected cases and tasks of the relevant time period.

There has been great interest in articulating the incidence and causes of staff turnover in child welfare (Dickinson & Perry, 2002; Strolin-Galtzman et al., 2008). One recent article notes that "child welfare workforce turnover rates are estimated to be between 23 percent and 60 percent annually across private and public child welfare agencies" (Strolin-Goltzman, Kollar, & Trinkle, 2010, p. 47).

From a professional human service perspective, chronic understaffing can have a negative effect on client safety. Yet, from a legal point of view, having insufficient people and resources may not be a valid excuse. Legally, clients are entitled to an acceptable standard of care, and the failure to provide that care may be like playing a scary game of Russian roulette, both for the client and the department. As one judge wrote, "Understaffing is not a defense to a violation of administrative law administrative law" (Salameda v. Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1995, p. 452). Lawsuits involving understaffing of jails, prisons, hospitals and nursing homes are common. In another area of law, regarding whether a defendent's constitutional right to a speedy trial was violated, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has classified reasons for delay as "improper," "neutral," or "valid. …

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