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2007 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 12, No. 1
January 2007

What Can We Learn from Those Who Stick Around?

Workforce issues have plagued public child welfare for decades. Naturally, the attention of researchers and people in the field has been drawn to the primary problem—high employee turnover rates. Although it is essential to find out all we can about turnover and its causes, some have suggested that we will never solve the retention problem if we overlook a key source of information—the many child welfare employees who survive the stresses, tensions, and difficulties and remain committed to child welfare throughout their careers.

For this reason, Westbrook, Ellis, and Ellett (2006) recently conducted a series of focus groups with child welfare workers and supervisors in urban, rural, and suburban communities in Georgia. What they learned from these “committed survivors” has implications for policy makers, agency directors, administrators, and supervisors.

The Study
In all, 21 child welfare employees from a variety of service areas (CPS, intake, CPS ongoing, foster care, adoptions, and foster home/resource development) were interviewed. Participants had 11 or more years of experience in public child welfare, though some had been intermittently employed (leaving for a time and returning). They ranged in age from 31 to 60+. All were female, most were Caucasian, and most had a BA or BS degree.

Discussions with these highly competent, long-term employees centered around three questions: (1) How have you managed to stay in child welfare when so many workers are leaving? (2) What organizational factors have contributed to your longevity in this field? and (3) What personal factors have contributed to your longevity in this field?

Based on what they learned from the focus groups, Westbrook and colleagues suggest that child welfare agencies take the following steps to improve worker retention.

Support Supervisors. If they wish to retain child welfare staff, agency directors and administrators should pay close attention to supervisors. These individuals must be carefully selected and supported so they can become proficient mentors and professional role models for workers.

Set the tone. Workers and supervisors can feel devalued by the system, which can be bureaucratic and impersonal. Agency administrators and supervisors can counteract this by creating an organizational climate that is affirming and empowering.

Recognize hard work, celebrate successes. Westbrook and colleagues urge agency administrators to express appreciation for employees’ contributions and exceptional efforts. Formal ways to do this include sharing information about workers’ and supervisors’ efforts and successes via the news media, agency newsletters, public forums, and staff meetings. Informal expressions of appreciation (e.g., personal comments about quality of work) also strengthen employees’ commitment to child welfare, which is linked to retention.

Advocate for competitive salaries. Adequate salaries are a way to protect the investment the agency has made in recruiting, selecting, and training employees.

Promote mentoring. New workers who start off with positive experiences that make them believe they can succeed in the field of child welfare are more likely to stick around. Early mentoring by veteran workers, supervisors, and administrators is one way to do this.

Emphasize on-the-job training. The child welfare veterans participating in this study saw on-the-job training as far more valuable than standardized, policy-focused training provided by the state child welfare agency, and felt it significantly impacts retention.

Hiring and Personnel
Assess applicants’ motivation. Participants confirmed what other research has told us—that strong levels of caring, altruism, and commitment to families are linked to retention of child welfare employees. Look for these traits when selecting new hires.

Develop reappointment preferences in policy for those who leave child welfare and later return. Experienced employees with good performance records are a valuable resource.

Create horizontal career paths. Not everyone is cut out for supervision and administration, yet often promotion to this level is the only means of advancement. Agencies should consider creating a horizontal career path (indexed by years of experience and salary levels) that would equitably compensate front line staff for remaining in direct services for their entire careers.

To Learn More
See Westbrook, T. M., Ellis, J. & Ellett, A. J. (2006). Improving retention among public child welfare workers: What can we learn from the insights and experiences of committed survivors? Administration in Social Work, 30(4), 37–62.

References for this and other articles in this issue