Child Welfare

Professional Social Workers in Child Welfare Work: Research Addressing the Recruitment and Retention Dilemma

This month, the NASW Research Web Page focuses on a number of studies that identify challenges to recruitment and retention; provides research and resource information that supports the importance of professional education for child welfare practice; highlights issues related to encouraging social workers to choose child welfare as a career path; and identifies outcomes from agency/university partnerships that affect recruitment and retention difficulties.

Following is information that provides context for this research, followed by examples of research efforts that can guide future policy, practice, education, training, and additional research.


The emotional toll on child welfare workers — who are often ill-prepared for the life and death decisions they have to make, who carry caseloads that are too high, and who lack adequate supervision and support — impact the safety, permanence, and well-being of children, as well as the willingness of the workers to remain at their jobs in the long term. Turnover is highest among those who are hired with the least background education and training.

Child welfare is a field of practice that the public most readily identifies as a social work domain, yet less than 30 percent of child welfare workers have professional social work degrees (BSW or MSW). In some states the number of professional social workers in public child welfare is as low as three percent, with fewer than 15 percent of states requiring a BSW or MSW degree for any child welfare position (CWLA, 1999).

The delivery of agency-based child welfare services is deeply rooted in the early history of the social work profession, and direct links exist between child welfare competencies and social work education curricula (Rittner & Wodarski, 1999).

Social work professionals continue to play key roles in child welfare direct practice, supervision, administration, research, training, and program and policy development. However, despite the long history of connections between social work and child welfare, child welfare agencies have difficulty in recruiting and retaining qualified staff. This is due to high caseloads, poor working conditions, limited resources, low salaries, declassified positions, policy and values confusion, no clear career path, and lack of quality supervision. Furthermore, the expanding opportunities for professional social workers in a variety of practice areas, combined with the difficulty of working in child welfare, often leads social workers toward other fields of practice.

A review of the Child and Family Service Reviews being carried out in states by the Children’s Bureau, identifies deficiencies in agencies’ abilities to assess ‘needs’ (Cohen, 2003), reinforcing the need for child welfare workers to have the knowledge and skills offered through social work and to have a workload that affords them the time to carry out these tasks. This is reinforced by the study by Pasztor, Saint-Germain, & DeCrensczo (2002), which found that “assessment of situations” was the critical skills identified as necessary for child welfare staff.

Recently, several states (Arizona, New Jersey, and Nebraska) have been successful in gaining support from policy makers to increase the size of the child welfare workforce. This will help to lower caseloads and allow staff to provide the depth and breadth of services that children, families, and foster families need to achieve permanence and safety for those in the child welfare system.

But the challenges are to find the workers and keep them, addressing both recruitment and retention, as the solutions to these problems are intertwined. These states and others must seek answers to the questions:

  • Who are the best people to be our nation’s front-line child welfare staff and supervisors?

— AND —

  • What can an agency do to keep those workers whom they hire and invest in through pre-service and in-service training?

Additional services and intervention research is needed to address the variables and processes raised by these questions, as well as dissemination of research findings which already point to answers.

  • There is not only a demand for more workers, but for workers who have the knowledge, skills, and values to:
  • Perform high quality assessments for both children and families
  • Make decisions at multiple levels
  • Work with children and families with complex needs
  • Facilitate intra- and inter-system coordination
  • Understand and implement policy mandates and advocate for changes where needed
  • Develop relationships with the multiple players in the child welfare system
  • Maintain their own emotional well-being, faced with trauma and a stressful working environment

For almost 50 years, there have been debates over what the optimum education and training for child welfare work should be and whether child welfare agencies should seek BSW and MSWs for front-line practice (Zlotnik, 2002). As more public and private agencies attempt to meet accreditation standards, as states and localities access federal funds for degree education of workers, and as agencies face challenges attracting the “right” workers and then getting them to stay, there is a growing body of evidence that supports the value of professionally educated social workers in child welfare.

Over the past 15 years a growing number of social work education programs have partnered with public child welfare agencies to prepare students for child welfare careers and to provide MSW education to already employed staff, often with the support of federal child welfare training funds (Title IV-B, 426 and Title IV-E) (Zlotnik, 2001), building a cadre of committed staff and developing outcome studies that support the value of a social work degree.

Recruitment and Retention Challenges

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) (1998)
Double Jeopardy: Caseworkers at Risk Helping At-Risk Kids: A Report on Working Conditions Facing Child Welfare Workers

This survey of AFSCME members examined working conditions and caseloads, indicating that:

  • Front-line workers are victims of violence;
  • 60 percent of respondents’ caseloads exceed standards set by the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA);
  • Time in court and filling out paper work and documentation made demands of the heavy caseloads even more difficult;
  • Training is inadequate and workers have little voice in sharing training; and
  • Salaries are not commensurate with the job demands.

American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) (2001)
Report from Child Welfare Workforce Survey: State and County Data and Findings

APHSA, CWLA, and the Alliance for Children and Families joined together in 2000 to survey public and private agencies in regard to recruitment and retention difficulties. The public agency data indicates that:

  • Worker caseloads range from 10 to 110,
  • States estimate 60 percent of turnover is preventable, and
  • University partnerships are a useful but not sufficient strategy addressing recruitment and retention.

The study also indicates that states that require social workers in positions have: lower average vacancy rates; lower rates of turnover; lower rates of preventable turnover (except for supervisors); improvements in preventable turnovers in last three years; and higher salaries, by approximately $2,500.

Annie E. Casey Foundation Human Services Workforce Initiative (AECF) (2003)
The Unsolved Challenge of System Reform: The Condition of the Frontline Human Services Workforce

This is the first national effort to address the critical condition of the workforce that cares for American’s most disadvantaged children and families. The initiative highlights the urgent need to recruit and retain workers who have the appropriate training and support to make crucial decisions that affect families.

General Accounting Office (GAO) (2003)
Child Welfare: HHS Could Play a Greater Role in Helping Child Welfare Agencies Recruit and Retain Staff

This report, requested by Reps. Stark (D-CA) and Greenwood (R-PA), cites high caseloads and related administrative burdens, as well as lack of supervision and training, as affecting both the ability to carry-out child welfare tasks effectively and the decision to stay in child welfare work. The report includes a review of Child and Family Service Reviews; an intensive study of four states and 585 exit interviews; and an extensive review of the literature.

Supporting Professional Social Work in Child Welfare

In the child welfare field, research shows that those who are most prepared to do the job are also the most likely to remain on the job. Numerous studies indicate that professional commitment is a major factor in continuing to work in the child welfare field.

These studies include the perspectives of individual workers, supervisors, and administrators (Ellett, 2000, 2003; GAO, 2003; Rycraft, 1994; Reagh, 1994; Vinokur, 1991), as well as assessment of agency performance and outcomes (Booz-Allen & Hamilton, 1987; Dhooper, Royse & Wolfe, 1990; Cyphers, 2001; Mon Barak, Nissly & Levin, 2001).

Coming and Staying
  • Intent to stay is related to ‘human caring’ and self-efficacy, which correlated with a social work degree (Ellett, 2000; Ellett, Ellett & Rugutt, 2003).
  • Intent to stay is a critical factor for agency’s organizational change strategies, as child welfare workers do not leave impulsively (Mon Barak, Nissly & Levin, 2001).
  • Staff with social work degrees — and those who are IV-E trained — are most inclined to stay (Barbee, 2003; Harrison, 1995; Lewandowski, 1998; Jones, 2002; Okamura & Jones, 1995; Vinokur-Kaplan, 1991; Ellett, 2003).
  • Workers with social work degrees demonstrate “goodness of fit.”(Rycraft, 1994; Bernatovicz, n.d.; Landsman, 2001)
  • States find that partnerships with universities, often supported by Title IV-E funds, provides a useful recruitment strategy (Cyphers, 2001; GAO, 2003), by:
    • Creating a pipeline for employees through BSW & MSW education
    • Providing degree education for advancement of current staff
    • Enhancing staff ‘s level of knowledge and skill
    • Meeting and/or achieving COA standards
    • Enhancing professional identification and commitment
  • Decreased turnover is affected by professional BSW and MSW degrees.
  • Non-specific staffing requirements discourage those with professional degrees from seeking child welfare jobs.
  • Retention is related to organizational support (Ellett, 2000; Midgeley, Ellett, Noble, Bennett & Livermore, 1994; Vinokur-Kaplan, 1991; Dickinson & Perry, 2002).
  • Supportive supervision and work environment are critical to retention (Cicero-Reese & Black, 1998; Dickinson & Perry, 2002; Mudrick, Hopkins & Rudolph, 1999; Landsman, 2001; Mon Barak, et al., 2001)
Child Welfare Outcomes
  • Permanence is more likely achieved if staff have BSW or MSW degree (Albers, Reilly & Rittner, 1993).
  • Worker turnover affects achievement of permanence. Hiring workers prepared for child welfare reduces turnover (Hess, Foloran, & Jefferson, 1992).
  • Workers who acquire MSW degrees also acquire more positive view of clients (McGowan & Auerbach, 2004).

Important Links

National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work (NADD) and the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators (NAPCWA) (2002)
Proceedings from the Professional Education to Advance Child Welfare Practice: An Invitational Working Conference
Available at: OR http://www/

This report highlights findings from studies indicating the impact of social work education on recruitment and retention and makes recommendations for sustaining university/agency partnerships.

Child Welfare/Social Work Education Partnerships
Web site:

This rich information resource is maintained through the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky in support of the cross-university collaboration, the Child Welfare Symposium, which evolved from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This Web site includes rules and regulations for Title IV-E training; a matrix of stipends for child welfare training; links to Title IV-E programs around the country; bibliographies; and findings from research studies.

Child Welfare League of America
R2P Research Round-Up: Child Welfare Workforce (September 2002)
Available at:

This overview of child welfare workforce issues summarizes research studies that address workforce issues including evidence that:

  • BSW and MSW degrees positively correlate with worker performance;
  • Social work education is linked to employee performance and retention;
  • Workers who have graduated from specialized child welfare/social work degree education program are more likely to remain in child welfare and experience greater satisfaction;
  • Personal characteristics (e.g., coping strategies, professional commitment, self-efficacy, and human caring) are a factor in retention and turnover;
  • Organizational factors related to retention include organizational support; and
  • Supervision and flexibility of assignments.

Further research is needed to look at the relationship between staff qualifications, workload, stability and client outcomes as well as between purchased services and those provided by agency staff.

References & Resources

Albers, E., Reilly, T., Rittner, B. (1993). Children in foster care: Possible factors affecting permanency planning. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 10 (329–341).
Anderson, D. G. (1994). Coping strategies and burnout among veteran child protection workers . Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Barbee, A. (2004). Ke ntucky’s answer to recruitment and retention of child welfare workers. Presentation at the 2004 Society for Social Work and Research Conference, New Orleans, LA.
Bernatovicz, F. (n.d.). Retention of child welfare caseworkers: A report . National Child Welfare Resource Center for Organizational Improvement. Available at: .
Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Inc. (1987). The Maryland social work services job analysis and personnel qualifications study. Author.
Child Welfare League of America. (1999). Minimum education required by state child welfare agencies, percent, by degree type, 1998. State Child Welfare Agency Survey.
Cicero-Reese, B. & Black, P. (February, 1998). Research findings suggest why child welfare workers stay on job. Partnerships for Child Welfare Newsletter, 5 (5).
Cohen, E. (2003). Getting the whole picture: CFSR, training and front-line practice. Presentation at CALSWEC meeting, September 2003.
Cyphers, G. (2001). The child welfare workforce challenge: Results from a preliminary study. Presented at Finding Better Ways, Dallas, TX, May 2001.
Dhooper, S., Royse, D., & Wolfe, L. (1990). Does social work education make a difference: Social Work, 35 , 57–61.
Dickinson, N. S., & Perry, R. E. (2002). Factors influencing the retention of specially educated public child welfare workers. Journal of Health & Social Policy, 15(3/4), 89-103.
Ellett, A. (2000). Human caring, self-efficacy beliefs, and professional, organizational culture correlates of employee retention in child welfare. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge.
Ellett, A., Ellett, C., & Rugutt, J.K. (2003). A study of personal and organizational factors contributing to employee retention and turnover in child welfare in Georgia: A report prepared for the Georgia Department of Human Resources/Division of Family & Children Services . Executive summary. Available at:
General Accounting Office. (March 2003). HHS could play a greater role in helping child welfare agencies recruit and retain staff. GAO-03-357. Available at:
Hess, P, Folaron, G. & Jefferson, A.(1992). Effectiveness of family reunification services: An innovative evaluative model. Social Work, 37 , 304–311.
Jones, L. P. (2002). A follow-up of a Title IV-E program’s graduates’ retention rates in a public child welfare agency. Journal of Health & Social Policy , 15, 39-52.
Landsman, M. (2001). Commitment in public child welfare. Social Service Review, 386–419.
Lewandowski, K. (1998). Retention outcomes of a public child welfare long-term training program. Professional Development: International Journal of Continuing Social Work Education, 1, 38–46.
McGowan, B. & Auerbach, C. (2004). A survey of MSW graduates at New York City Administration for Children’s Services. Presentation at 2004 Society for Social Work and Research Conference, New Orleans, LA.
Midgeley, J., Ellett, C., Noble, D., Bennett, N., & Livermore, M. (1994). Preliminary study of professional personnel needs: For the Louisiana State Office of Community Services. Baton Rouge, LA.
Mor Barak, M., Nissly, J., Levin, A. (2001). Antecedents to retention and turnover among child welfare, social work, and other human service employees: What can we learn from past research? A review and metanalysis. Social Service Review, 625-661.
Okamura, A. & Jones, L. (1998, March). Reprofessionalizing child welfare services: An evaluation of a IV-E training program. Paper presented at the annual program meeting of the Council on Social Work Education, Orlando, FL.
Pasztor, E., Saint-Germain, M. & DeCrescenzo, T. (April 2002). Demand for social workers in California. Available from California State University, Long Beach. Available at:
Reagh, R. 1994). Public child welfare professionals: Those who stay. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 21(3), 69-78.
Rittner, B. & Wodarski, J. (1999). Differential uses for BSW and MSW educated social workers in child welfare services. Children and Youth Services Review, 21, 217–238.
Rycraft, J. (1993). The party isn’t over: The agency role in the retention of public child welfare caseworkers. Social Work, 39, 75–80.
Vinokur-Kaplan, D. (1991). Job satisfaction among social workers in public and voluntary child welfare agencies. Child Welfare, 70, 80–91.
Zlotnik, J. (2001). Enhancing child welfare service delivery: Promoting agency-social work education partnerships. Policy and Practice, 59(1).
Zlotnik, J. L., (2002). Preparing social workers for child welfare practice: Lessons from an historical review of the literature. Journal of Health and Social Policy, 15(3/4), 5–21.

January 4th, 2010 at 12:33 pm

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