Managing Child Welfare in Turbulent Times

By Gustavsson, Nora; MacEachron, Ann E. | Social Work, January 2013 | Go to article overview

Managing Child Welfare in Turbulent Times


Gustavsson, Nora, MacEachron, Ann E., Social Work


The latest recession has officially ended. However, unemployment rates remain troubling high, and many states continue to struggle with decreased revenues and subsequent reduced funding for state agencies. Some states have cut funding for social and health services at a time when demands for these services have increased.

Agencies can use a variety of strategies to cope with the economic uncertainties. They can restrict intake criteria when funding is unable to meet the demand for services. They rely on volunteers to perform staff functions. Hiring freezes and elimination or reduction of staff incentives can be used to reduce costs. Agency missions may be modified to access available funding streams.

Internal reallocation of staff, resources, and workload also provide momentary respite.

There are costs associated with each of these strategies. Clients in need are not served, often exacerbating the original issues. Staff morale and commitment may fall, resulting in increased turnover. Changes in agency mission may ignore real community needs. Relying on volunteers to fill staffing needs has costs. They must be recruited, screened, trained, monitored, supported, evaluated, and rewarded and recognized. These activities require staff time. Failure to perform these functions can place an agency at risk, increase liability, and harm clients.

Public child welfare is in an especially difficult position. Restricting intake, a viable option in other settings, presents unique problems. Federal and state policies play a major role in establishing intake criteria for Child Protective Services (CPS). If a referral meets these standards, then services must be initiated within specified time lines.

As states have struggled with reduced revenues, CPS can also be affected through budget cuts. Budget cuts include reductions in services, elimination of paid overtime for line staff, furloughs, and hiring freezes. These budget cuts reduce the number of services available to help families as well as the staff needed to offer and monitor services. Especially troublesome are the hiring freezes, which can result in uncovered caseloads. Combined with other imposed cost-saving initiatives, CPS is nonetheless faced with a continuing mandate to protect vulnerable children and strengthen their families even when there are fewer resources.

STAFFING DURING RECESSIONS

Recruitment and retention of CPS staff has been an ongoing concern. Yearly staff turnover rates are reported to range from 20 percent to 40 percent or more (U.S. Government Accounting Office, 2003). When CPS agencies were allowed to hire staff, they could simply keep hiring to replace the exiting staff. This strategy does not address the issues associated with losing trained staff, such as uncovered caseloads, the amount of time it can take for new staff to be comfortable and competent in the complex role of a CPS case manager, and the price paid by children and their families when they experience worker turnover (Strolin-Goltzman, Kollar, & Trinkle, 2010).

Child welfare agencies recognized the hiring and retention problems and began developing actions plans (see, for example, Strolin-Goltzman et al., 2009). In time, these efforts may well have provided long-term solutions. However, the recession and subsequent budget reductions altered these strategies from proactive problem solving to reactive coping. CPS is now faced with making difficult choices such as what services to try to keep and what eligibility criteria should accompany these limited services.

At the staff level, the choices are just as difficult. Staff continue to leave CPS positions. Yet the agency cannot hire replacements. Coping strategies such as reassigning other staff (such as administrators, trainers, case managers from closed units) to intake functions can provide a temporary respite. If the hiring freeze continues, these strategies wear thin and agencies are hard-pressed to find replacement personnel. …

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