By Caitlin Feasby, Statewide Coordinator, Ohio Infant-Toddler Court Team
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In recognition of September being Child Welfare Workforce Development Month, hosted by the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute (NCWWI), we’re recognizing the achievements of child welfare professionals in acknowledgment of their professional expertise.
Throughout the month, we will be sharing information and resources to raise awareness of the needs of the child welfare workforce and amplify appreciation for their service. Ohio’s child welfare system is not a single entity, but encompasses a myriad of professionals and services whose top priority is to strengthen families and keep children safe.
Many families first interact with the child welfare system following a report of suspected child abuse or neglect. While this is often the extent of the general public’s understanding of the child welfare system, the system more accurately represents a wide continuum of services including resource provision, prevention services, support programming, and service coordination to name a few.
Taking a Moment to Recognize a Highly Skilled Workforce in Crisis
This service continuum is staffed by professionals whose work is often under-recognized. According to the National Association of Social Workers, child welfare workers are often subject to:
heavy administrative burden, and
physical and psychological safety risks.
Together, these factors create the foundation for a highly complex landscape that makes a difficult job even more challenging.
The nature of child welfare work demands an intricate balance of critical thinking skills, sound judgement, and rapid yet calculated responses to endless high-stress situations. This level of demand is difficult to maintain long-term, and nearly impossible without adequate support. According to research done by The Ohio State University/PCSAO and the Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development:
63% of case workers and agency staff report feeling moderate-to-high levels of work stress.
53% of Ohio’s children’s services workforce experience levels of secondary traumatic stress (STS) that meet the threshold for a formal PTSD diagnosis.
61% of ongoing caseworkers have caseloads exceeding the recommended level, forcing many to work overtime.
These statistics represent a tenuous relationship between child welfare work, personal well-being, and work/life balance. The challenges noted above fuel the child welfare workforce crisis by prompting a revolving door of workforce turnover.
In 2018, the median employment tenure for CPS workers was 1.8 years, and just 2 years for the child welfare workforce overall. The numbers tell the story. Turnover points to the stability of a workforce and the health of the system housing it. Unbridled turnover in the child welfare sector has severe financial consequences, as the continuous recruitment and replacement of personnel costs between $10,000 - $50,000 per vacancy.
With each new vacancy, the workload becomes heavier for those who remain, as workers absorb additional cases and responsibilities to maintain the service continuum. Greater demand leads to elevated rates of burnout and compassion fatigue, further spurring turnover. Most importantly, an endless cycle of empty desks and new workers minimizes the child welfare workforce’s ability to conduct successful, family-centered services. In the context of child safety and family support, there is no margin for error caused by systemic deficiencies.
Taking a Moment to Recognize the Impact
This ripple effect has tangible, life-altering consequences. Families bear the most significant burden of the concerns plaguing the child welfare workforce. Research indicates that workforce instability results in poorer outcomes for child safety and permanency, results in fewer family visits, and lessens the likelihood of reunification. Placement instability and sporadic family visits are linked to numerous negative implications on a child’s well-being, including disruptions in physical, cognitive, and social development, increased probability of attachment disorders, and negative effects on behavioral well-being across the lifespan.
Workforce issues do not exist in a vacuum. The very children we aim to protect are harmed by the structural shortcomings of the child welfare system.
Supporting the Workforce
In January 2023, Governor DeWine said:
“Our future is bright - but that future will be defined by how well we educate all our children and how we tear down the barriers to their success. . . . [This] budget … focuses on our people, on our families, and on our children, for they are Ohio’s greatest asset.”
At Groundwork Ohio, we fervently hold this same belief. This month, we uplift those on the frontlines who work every day to support Ohio families and keep children safe, recognizing the effort and care provided by the child welfare workforce, despite inherent challenges.
How will you take a moment?