Antoinette Rucker was 16 years old and looking forward to moving from a foster care group home to a permanent placement with her older sister.
But the process dragged on for almost a year, Rucker said, because the social worker handling her transition went on maternity leave and didn’t come back.
That meant Rucker had to get to know a new caseworker, who was learning Rucker’s case at the same time, slowing the process. Altogether, Rucker had three different caseworkers during the transition, she said.
“It’s almost like they’re your parent,” Rucker said of case managers. “They take you to the doctor, parent/teacher conferences. So when you have someone that’s starting over consistently, you have to adjust to a new person, and they have to adjust to you.”
That adjustment was made more challenging by workers who came from a patchwork of educational backgrounds, Rucker said.
“I thought the agency hired people that had a B.S.W. [bachelor’s degree in social work],” she said. “But they hire people with [degrees in] criminal justice, psychology, sociology. So everybody doesn't practice the same.”
Though Rucker was able to eventually move in permanently with her sister, other foster youth who experience turnover are not so lucky. A short-term 2005 study of foster youth in Milwaukee County, Wis., requested by the governor’s office, found that worker turnover hurt foster children’s chances for permanency.
Dr. Katharine Briar-Lawson, co-principal investigator for the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute, said a lack of specific training contributes to worker turnover.
“Sometimes workers are seeking more help with their cases, and if they don't have the right skills, if they're just hired with a degree in anything … they may be more vulnerable because they're not comfortable with what they're seeing,” she said.
Their solution? Find a job that’s less intense, Briar-Lawson said.
Gathering national data on turnover is difficult because of the different ways foster care is operationalized across the states, said Mary Jane Dessables, director of research and information for the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies.
Growing attention to the issue in the early and mid-2000s resulted in a number of national surveys. A 2003 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that child welfare staff turnover was between 30 and 40 percent, and a 2004 American Public Health Services Agency report found that the rate of turnover among foster care and adoption workers was around 20 percent.
More recent, though incomplete, data is available at the state level. In California, which has the country's largest foster youth population, the turnover rate among public-sector child welfare social workers in 47 of the state’s 58 counties was 7.1 percent in 2011, according to a report by the California Social Work Education Center. That number does not include Los Angeles, which accounts for one-third of the state’s child welfare staff.
Among foster care case planners at 47 not-for-profit agencies in New York, which has the country’s second-largest system, average annual turnover was 31.9 percent in fiscal year 2013, Dessables said.
Rates in individual agencies can fluctuate over time due to changes in leadership or crises such as the death of a child, said Dr. Joan Zlotnik, a senior consultant for the National Association of Social Workers. But for the most part, turnover has been steady.
"The patterns have pretty much been pretty stable," said Dr. Mary McCarthy, co-principal investigator for the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute. "Now what people are focusing on more — because data-gathering is so complicated — people are focusing more on intervention."
"The question is no longer whether or not there is turnover and what should be done about it," Eileen Mayers Pasztor, a professor of social work at California State University, Long Beach, and a consultant for the Child Welfare League of America, said in an email. "But, instead: What will it take to implement the recommendations that have long been established?"
Those recommendations include hiring workers with an education in social work.
Retention via education
The New Jersey Department of Children and Families began taking steps to retain workers in 2004, when its turnover rate was 15.9 percent, said Commissioner Allison Blake.
Among the department’s strategies, which included reducing caseloads and lowering the supervisor-to-worker ratio, was a program called the Baccalaureate Child Welfare Education Program, formed in 2005.
The department partnered with social work programs at nine colleges and universities across the state to give students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in social work an opportunity to intern with the department and eventually be hired to work there.
The program is funded in part by Title IV-E, a federal fund for child welfare education and training, which has been used to create similar partnerships between universities and agencies in other states.
“A social work education program exposes future child welfare staff to the values and knowledge that prepare them for the work that they’re going to be doing,” Blake said. “It really begins to create a sense of professionalism and confidence.”
Thanks to the program and the department’s other efforts, its turnover rate has dropped to 7.24, Blake said.
In 2012, the department created a new initiative, in partnership with three graduate programs, to send supervisors back to school for a master’s in social work.
Blake said it sends a message to new graduates considering career choices that the department values a social work degree, and that employees will be working alongside other people who have such degrees.
Several studies have shown a link between agencies that require social work degrees and lower turnover rates.
Judith Schagrin, assistant director of the Baltimore County Department of Social Services, said her department’s requirement that front-line workers have a master’s in social work and are properly licensed has been a key to retention.
"When you bring people in with just a college degree to do work, you totally overwhelm them," said Schagrin, who has been with the department for 32 years. "I do believe that [the requirement] contributes to retention because you're working in a professional workplace with other professionals who share the same ethical code and same ethical values."
A 2008 national survey of child welfare workers found that about 18 percent of workers had a master’s degree in social work, and about 20 percent had a bachelor's degree in the field.
Baltimore County is one of the few places in the country that has such strong requirements, Zlotnik, of NASW, said.
Schagrin said she does not have recent turnover data for her department, but that it has been steady over the last 10 years or so. Out of a staff of 50 workers and 10 supervisors, she estimated that about eight to 10 leave their jobs each year.
A 2007 report by the University of Maryland School of Social Work found that the turnover rate among child welfare workers in Baltimore County was about 23 percent in 2006.
"For the most part, people aren't leaving here because they hate it here," Schagrin said, but because of life changes or better job opportunities elsewhere.
And though advanced-degree workers might come at a higher cost to agencies, Zlotnik said it’s worth it in the long run because of the high costs of turnover, which include payments for recruitment and training.
Antoinette Rucker said she thinks standardized requirements would make turnover less difficult for foster kids. A background in social work gives workers the core skills and code of ethics required to do the job, she said.
“That would make everything a lot better, honestly,” she said.
Rucker, now 22, is doing her part. In December, she will graduate from Albany State University in Albany, Ga., with a social work degree. After that, she plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work at the University of Georgia.
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