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The impact of the Great Resignation in child welfare

Woman holding an iPad and looking up, with a city landscape in the background
Woman holding an iPad and looking up, with a city landscape in the background

What is the Great Resignation?

The Great Resignation is sometimes depicted as an uprising of blue- and white-collar workers. This uprising left companies struggling with hiring and retention across sectors, including in the child welfare sector.

Challenges with staff retention are not new to the child welfare workforce. According to research conducted by Casey Family Programs in 2017, “Annual turnover rates below 10–12 percent are considered optimal or healthy.” However, “for the past 15 years, child welfare turnover rates have been estimated at 20–40 percent. The available data reflect an estimated national average of approximately 30 percent.”

In an industry where one is often required to do more with less, the pandemic may have finally tipped the scale of what the workforce was willing and able to do. The realities of the pandemic asked the workforce to risk their lives and their families’ lives to ensure the safety of children in care and continue the work of permanency. Additionally, workers were asked to find innovative ways to continue their responsibilities when the tools and strategies used for generations—including face-to-face interaction—were taken away from them. 

According to a report by the National Child Welfare Resource Center for Organizational Improvement, recruitment and retention of child welfare caseworkers is a “chronic and apparently intractable problem.”

That same report goes on to refer to a 1960 Children’s Bureau publication called “In Search of Staff for Child Welfare,” which “noted staffing shortages nationwide and urged the state’s aggressive recruitment and retention strategies.”  

Since then, there have been many studies focused on child welfare recruitment and retention; over 60 years later, workforce issues remain.

What is the overall impact?

It is well-known that inadequate staffing hurts safety, permanency, and well-being outcomes.

To understand the impacts of the Great Resignation on child welfare, we interviewed Thalia Wright, commissioner of the Department of Human Services in Monroe County. She believes that although the turnover “isn’t necessarily something new to the child welfare system, the mass exodus due to the pandemic was significant.”

Of recruiting new employees, Thalia says, “We have found it increasingly challenging to attract new staff. Many new hires have no interest in the longevity of holding positions. Competing with other organizations that offer sign-on bonuses has also impacted recruitment.”

She continues, “I believe that the pandemic had a significant impact. Over the past two years, we have had a vacancy rate of 25–30% in child welfare. Many staff experienced higher caseloads due to turnover, and we have learned to do more with less. Some worked longer hours ensuring that children were safe. We have been tracking our separation data internally to ensure we are making adjustments as needed.”

What is the impact on Black, Indigenous, and people of color?

As we assess the impact of the Great Resignation on the child welfare workforce, it is also necessary to highlight how this challenge has impacted communities of color.

According to Thalia, “The needs and experiences of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) populations have been historically ignored and inadequately considered in this country due to structural racism, which has directly impacted racial disproportionality and disparities. Moreover, many professionals of color have shared their desire to not return to the office—wanting to avoid the uncomfortable, biased, racist workplace banter and the forced, awkward social interaction that comes with it.”

The National Child Welfare Workforce Institute is currently supporting seven sites to build a sustainable child welfare workforce. This focus on systems change has included the use of evidence-informed strategies and advancing workplace equity, which is transforming child welfare organizations across the country.

What can employers do?

To counter the impact of the Great Resignation, many child welfare organizations are improving wages, offering improved benefits, and even adjusting the nature of the work. Thalia sees this as a great reset and an opportunity to create much-needed systems change. To effect this change, she believes it is vital for professionals to openly communicate and utilize information and data from retention interviews.

“It is important to listen to our staff and the leadership team on how we can be more efficient and meet the needs of our community. The staff has been phenomenal, as they know their jobs and what works and what doesn’t. Creating an open, safe, and transparent space to address concerns and be solution-focused has been amazing. So many of the plans have come directly from the staff—the front-line workers. We continue to assess our initiatives and strategies and now prioritize staff engagement in our strategic plan.”

Thalia says the remaining staff identified salaries as their top concern. She continues by saying, “With being down staff, caseload sizes are also a big concern. Remote work has been an added plus, and a small thing like being able to dress down daily was essential to them.”

Some of the most impactful strategies that Thalia implemented were:

  1. Increased access to mental health services: In addition to bringing in the Employee Assistance Program to work with staff, Thalia’s team sent out support resources. Thalia also secured a trauma-focused grant. This allowed her team to create wellness rooms and safe and quiet spaces to support trauma-responsive services. She believes one big strategy that has yielded promising results was the implementation of brown-bag lunches. “Building time to hear from the staff, I host a brown-bag lunch monthly for all staff. There is no agenda. It’s just an opportunity to hear from staff—clarify, listen, and give suggestions.”
  2. Remote work options: The organization implemented remote, telework, and flexible work schedule options to ensure staff had a work-life balance.
  3. Hazard pay: With the competitive market and the need for staff across the board, Thalia’s team received salary requests outside of what they traditionally could offer. At the beginning of the pandemic, through CARES Act funding, they gave a 30% hazard pay increase. 
  4. Policy changes: “We also assessed our work and collaborated with our state officials to assist with efficiencies. For example, case consolidation has helped our staff feel the work is more manageable while not removing their responsibility.”
  5. Improved communication: A key piece of Thalia’s efforts revolved around improving communication with her staff. It was important to loop back to staff to let them know that she heard them, and Thalia even began to share the changes implemented due to staff input. “When staff started seeing their input was valued, they were more willing to roll up their sleeves and go above and beyond.” In their article “For Missouri Field Support Manager, it’s all About Relationships,” the National Child Welfare Institute agrees with Thalia, noting that when the “workforce feels involved and respected, they are more likely to stay in their jobs and gain the skills and confidence to do what is most important.”
  6. New team structures: To ensure the work was moving forward, Thalia’s team implemented new team structures. They recruited retired child welfare workers and brought them back on a per diem basis. This has supported the department with case closures, supervision, coaching, and mentoring. “We also have been tracking and trending out our data to forecast needs—looking at things like cases received and case assignments.” 

The Great Resignation has forced many work sectors to adapt to meet a new era of professionals: those willing to walk out the door when their needs aren’t met. As the workforce resets, child welfare will continue to evolve in protecting children and families and increasing autonomy for staff.

If your organization needs support with retention or is looking for innovative ways to create sustainable change, reach out to the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute (NCWWI). NCWWI promotes organizational interventions centered on developing and retaining a diverse and successful workforce.