Workforce plays important role in child welfare, experts say

NASW part of panel that testified at hearing of Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities

A competent, respected and well-supervised child welfare workforce can impact outcomes in child welfare service delivery.

This was among the suggestions expressed to the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities at its latest public hearing, which was held in Portland, Ore., in late February.

NASW member Michael Petit, former president of Every Child Matters Education Fund; and social worker Marilyn Bruguier Zimmerman, director of the National Native Children’s Trauma Center, serve on the 12-member commission, which was created by the bipartisan Protect Our Kids Act in 2012.

The commission is beginning its second year and is hosting public hearings across the U.S. as it seeks input in drafting recommendations in its report to the president and Congress in 2016.

Joan Levy Zlotnik, a nationally recognized expert on child welfare workforce issues, and director of the NASW Social Work Policy Institute, represented the association at the Portland hearing and served on an experts’ panel that discussed how workforce and workload issues could be considered as factors in preventing child maltreatment fatalities.

“I highlighted what we know from research – that quality supervision and having competent child welfare workers are important,” Zlotnik said. “It was vital that NASW testify before the commission on social work workforce issues, particularly in child welfare.”

She noted that child welfare workers often have insufficient clinical training and assessment skills.

“These issues impact how people do their job,” she said. “We want a system that best keeps kids safe and best supports workers who are energized, supported and competent.”

Time and again, deaths of children known to the child welfare system have major impacts on the well-being of the agency’s workers. Zlotnik suggested that committees that review child maltreatment fatalities should not only consider issues related to the child, the family, and what services were being offered but also look at some of the characteristics of workers who might be involved in the case.

Committees should ask “Do such reviews look at workload, training, organizational culture and climate issues that lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout or how long the worker has been on the job?” she said.

Zlotnik noted that a National Center for Crime and Delinquency study of California counties, which was commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, showed that workforce capacity has a direct link to child maltreatment reoccurrence rates. The study shows that child welfare agencies with the lowest workforce turnover rates had the lowest rates of reoccurrence of child maltreatment. The study is available as a PDF: Agency Workforce Estimation: Simple Steps for Improving Child Safety and Permanency.

Zlotnik provided the commission with the 14 components of an effective child welfare workforce that was developed by the Children’s Defense Fund/Children’s Rights National Child Welfare Workforce Policy Workgroup.

She explained that better child welfare outcomes can occur by promoting workforce well-being. This includes:

  • Promoting hiring and retention of competent staff
  • Applying evidence-informed retention and strategies
  • Promoting policies that fund social work education and professional development
  • Creating and sustaining university-agency partnerships
  • Building healthy organizational culture and climate
  • Supporting high-quality and supportive supervision
  • Applying clinical and evidence-based knowledge to engage with families and promote strengths.

Zlotnik said she followed up with questions by the commissioners, which focused on the number of MSW programs in the U.S. and the number of them that have child welfare concentrations/specializations. She also provided a listing of NASW child welfare resources, including Selected Resources on the Efficacy of Social Work for Public Child Welfare Practice, developed by Zlotnik and recently updated by the center for Advancing Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota.

NASW will continue to provide feedback to the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities as it moves forward.

“The commission saw workforce issues are import so we will continue to provide input as they do their work,” Zlotnik said.