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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 4, No. 3
June 1999

Social Worker Retention

Few would dispute that turnover is a problem in child welfare. But beyond that, what do we really know? How high are turnover rates? Why do workers leave? What effect does this turnover have on outcomes for families and children? And, more to the point, what can be done about it?

National Turnover Rates

High child welfare worker turnover rates affect states all over the nation. According to one report by the General Accounting Office, "next to funding, states report that staffing is the most serious issue facing their child welfare systems. In response to an APWA survey, 90 percent of states reported difficulty recruiting and retaining caseworkers" (GAO, 1995).

For example, in the early 1990s Prince William County, Virginia reported a 60 percent turnover rate among child welfare staff. In 1997 Broward County, Florida, reported an 85 percent turnover rate. In 1996 the turnover among Massachusetts Department of Social Services workers was 300 employees per year, with Taunton County reporting 100 percent turnover.

This phenomenon also occurs in child welfare administration. Testifying before Congress in 1993, David Liederman, director of the Child Welfare League of America, stated, "There is a lack of stable leadership in child welfare. In the last two years there has been a fifty-percent turnover among State directors of child welfare programs. This is outrageous" (Thoma, 1998).

Turnover in North Carolina

There is no statewide data on child welfare staff turnover in North Carolina. However, for the past nine years, Ted Bowen, former director of the Eastern Regional Office of the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Resources, maintained data on DSS staff turnover rates for 30 counties in the eastern part of the state. This region extends north to Virginia, south to South Carolina, and west to the Wilson area. According to these records, rates of turnover for all DSS staff ranged from 24.8 to 34.2 percent, with an average of around 29 percent. Many of these counties struggle to recruit qualified employees, who can be difficult to find and attract to the rural settings typical of this area.

In February 1999 representatives of North Carolina's 27 Families for Kids and IV-E Waiver counties met to discuss child welfare staff turnover. Although some participants offered statistics ranging from 30 to 110 percent rates of turnover for foster care placement workers, these figures were not official.

During their February discussion counties also brought up the point that turnover rates seem to be higher in some positions than others. For example, one county estimated the turnover rate at 10 percent in placement staff but at 95 percent in CPS staff. Others agreed that they had difficulty keeping employees in one area, but there didn't seem to be any pattern--that is, in one county the higher turnover rate may have been in placement, but in the next county CPS was the problem area.

Effects on Children

When agencies lack adequate staff, caseloads and stress levels increase for those workers who stay behind. Miscommunication and mistakes can occur when a child's case is "handed off" to a new person. Many child welfare professionals believe that all of these conditions delay permanence for children (Thoma, 1998), and lower the quality of services they receive while they are in foster care (Well, 1994).

At least one study contradicts this belief. In this study R.M. George used data from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to track rates of reunification for 851 children in foster care. Surprisingly, George found that more staff turnover in a particular child's cae resulted in swifter reunification for that child. In his discussion of his findings, George gives this explanation: "Although this may seem counterintuitive, action on a particular case may only occur at some procedural or bureaucratic milestone. Thus, the more caseworkers a child has, the more possibilities exist for review and consideration of reunification" (George, 1993).

Why Workers Leave

It is not hard to understand why workers leave child welfare. In their 1996 study, researchers Drake and Yamada found that inadequate pay, tough working conditions, lack of recognition for a job well-done, chronic stress, emotional exhaustion, and overwork all negatively affect worker retention. During the February 1999 discussion participants named most of these factors, adding to them the pressures of high caseloads, paperwork, and liability concerns.

In North Carolina, competition from other county departments of social services contributes to turnover. Because funding for child welfare positions is county-based, workers sometimes leave one agency to take an equivalent job in another county--for better pay and, sometimes, better working conditions.

Those Who Stay

What do we know about the child welfare workers who hang in there? Relevant education seems to be a predictive factor (Dickinson & Perry, 1998).

In Texas, a study found that in the past five years, 67 percent of CPS staff with degrees in social work were still working for Protective Services. There was an 87 percent retention rate among those who, in addition to having a BSW, also had a placement internship in the social service agency prior to working there. Workers with human service-related degrees such as psychology or education had a retention rate of 46 percent, while those with a background outside of these areas showed a retention rate of only 37 percent (Texas CPS Training Institute, 1997).

Other studies have found that those who stay in public welfare have worked longer in adoptions and permanency planning than those who have left or plan to leave (Dickinson & Perry, 1998). Those who stay in public welfare also tend to report that they have received higher levels of job-related support from coworkers.

Supervision is Critical

Supervision may be the most important factor of all. Research shows that those who remain in child welfare are more likely to report that their supervisor is willing to listen to work-related problems and to help them get their jobs done, than are those who leave or are planning to leave. These individuals rate their supervisors as more competent, willing to show appreciation, approachable, and concerned for their well-being than the supervisors of those who leave.

The importance of good supervision was confirmed by the N.C. Division of Social Services' Joan McAllister, who said, "in going to different agencies around North Carolina, I have come to believe that competent, supportive supervision is the single most important factor in an agency's or unit's ability to retain workers. If you find an agency with a stable work force, you will usually find excellent supervisors."

Retaining Social Workers

Agencies can do several things to decrease turnover. If possible, hire individuals with a human services education. It is also critical to provide your workers with high-quality, supportive supervision and opportunities for skill development. For more ideas see "Ideas for Retaining Child Welfare Workers in North Carolina".


Bowen, T. (1999). [Turnover rates for 30 counties in eastern North Carolina in the 1990s]. Unpublished raw data.

Dickinson, N. & Perry, R. (1998, December). Why do MSWs stay in public child welfare? Presented at the 11th National Conference of the National Staff Development and Training Association, New Orleans, LA.

Drake, B. & Yadama, G. (1996). A structural equation model of burnout and job exit among child protective services workers. Social Work Research, 20(3), 179-187.

General Accounting Office. (1995). Child welfare: Complex needs strain capacity to provide services, Letter Report, Reference: GAO/HEHS-95-208 (Sept. 26).

George, R. M. (1993). Effect of public child welfare worker characteristics and turnover on discharge from foster care. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall Center for Children (tel: 312/753-5900).

Reagh, R. (1994). Public child welfare professionals: Those who stay. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 21(3), 69-78.

1999 Jordan Institute for Families