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When Compassion Calls: Addressing the Well-Being of Child Welfare Workers

August 31, 2023

"We don’t have any food. They are going to take my kids! Can you help me?" The desperate plea of a mother came through my voicemail. It was dinner time; I had already left the office for the day. I had been working with this family for months to address several safety risk factors. It was a tough case, and my job as a Prevention Specialist with the Department of Social Services (DSS) was to keep this family safely intact. I felt the weight of this responsibility every day. I knew if I did not intervene, foster care would be imminent for the children. However, the call came during the few hours I slept between jobs. I made less than $30,000 per year at DSS and, to make ends meet, worked a second full-time job at a residential program for youth aging out of foster care. Those few hours between jobs were the only time I had to rest. I had to choose between caring for myself and helping this family because it was too late in the day to access a food pantry or other community-based service. I opened my cabinets to see what I could spare; they were almost bare. It was the end of the month, and my next paycheck was a week away. I didn’t have much, but I took what I had – dry pasta and a jar of sauce – and headed to the family’s home. I helped the mother prepare food for her five children and felt their gratitude as I watched them happily eat the simple meal. After working a 10-hour day, it would be another 16 hours before I would sleep. Regardless, I wanted the family to know that they could always rely on me. Keeping them safely together was my priority. Even when it was difficult or inconvenient, their well-being mattered to me. 

Child Welfare Workforce  Retention Strategies 

Over 7,000 child welfare caseworkers are employed in the United States. Caseworkers are employed at public and private agencies supporting the safety, permanency, and well-being of children and families. Child welfare caseworkers are expected to make decisions about family systems while upholding local, state, and federal policies and regulations. Because the work involves meeting the needs of people, the job requires caseworkers to be available to clients outside of typical business hours. Child welfare work comes with high demands and minimal infrastructure to provide ongoing organizational and supervisory support to caseworkers, which leads to decreased caseworker well-being and increased burnout.

As child welfare agencies strategize to address the workforce crisis that spans the country, efforts cannot solely focus on recruitment. Child welfare agencies must also demonstrate commitment to supporting the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and financial well-being of the workforce. Child welfare agencies must acknowledge that child welfare requires specific education, training, and skills and, therefore, caseworkers should receive compensation comparable to other skilled professions. By providing child welfare caseworkers with living wages, they can provide for their families without the need for secondary employment that contributes to burnout. In addition to increased wages, child welfare agencies should advocate for caseworkers to be classified as first responders. Caseworkers are exposed to many of the same critical situations in our communities as police, fire, and EMS. The distinction of first responder has been shown to improve employee well-being through the provision of comprehensive benefits that provide access to physical and mental healthcare, eligibility for and access to state and federal grants and incentives, and improved workforce recruitment and retention.

The  work that child welfare caseworkers perform is mentally and emotionally demanding. Child welfare agencies must address workforce well-being by encouraging rest and building rest practices into organizational culture to promote self-care and overall well-being. A thriving and healthy child welfare workforce is invaluable to our communities. If we are truly committed to the safety, permanency, and well-being of children and families involved with the child welfare system, we must first prioritize the well-being of the workforce.

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