Strengthening the Child Welfare Workforce

Samaura Stone,
Senior Policy Associate

Like most social workers, I vividly remember graduating college with a clear mission to change the world. I had excelled in my coursework, held previous gigs in therapeutic settings, and adopted a strong social justice lens, which boosted my confidence even more. After several years in casework, my attempt to navigate multiple systems to support clients and the constant heartbreak I felt when the youth I worked with experienced set-backs, were enough for me to leave. I realized how naïve I was to think I could make a difference in such a large, complex system. I maintained an enormous amount of compassion for the youth and families who, unlike me did not have the option of walking away.

As states gear up to implement the recently passed Family First Prevention Services Act, I have been thinking about the important role that child welfare workers play in executing these new provisions. The child welfare workforce faces various challenges that could impact their ability to implement such massive changes. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, “Building a stable and effective workforce continues to be a challenge for many child welfare agencies across the country. Worker turnover, hiring “freezes,” and the lack of qualified applicants are among the factors frequently cited as barriers to effective service delivery.” A report by Casey Family Services revealed that child welfare turnover for the last 15 years has been between 20-40%, with a national average of 30%, and some individual agencies as high as 65%. The cost to child welfare agencies can be about $54,000 per replacement.

The issue of developing social workers and in particular strengthening the child welfare workforce has been mentioned lately in conversations associated with foster care reform. There is a more visible push to highlight the stress social workers face, train new workers on vicarious trauma, and acknowledge high caseloads. For example, the image below is from a video created by the Child Abuse and Neglect Technical Assistance and Strategic Dissemination Center (CANTASD) focused on workplace stress for children and family services workers.

I am relieved to see that various resources are being developed to help the child welfare workforce and awareness is being raised. For example, the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute (NCWWI) developed the Workforce Development Framework to help agency leaders improve the health of their workforce. NCWWI also announced five jurisdictions and three tribal child welfare programs as Workforce Excellence sites. The participants will work with NCWWI sites to evaluate their organization, create stipend plans with their university partners, and use evidence-informed strategies to build the leadership skills of their workforce.

The National Child Welfare Workforce Institute’s Workforce Framework

Despite a not so optimal workplace, it is encouraging that most social workers are still passionate about working with children and families. A 2018 survey conducted by the Council on Social Work Education with new social work graduates reveals that 34.8% of social workers work in child and family services, and about 82% of social workers are in direct/clinical services which may include child welfare.

Overall, a considerable amount of social workers will work in child welfare at some point in their career. I am hopeful that with many new initiatives and reforms, they won’t enter the workforce as unprepared as I did. Perhaps, it was too ambitious to think I could change the world. However, I am confident that with the right amount of leadership, training, and empowerment, social workers can help to open up a new world for their clients, a world that is filled with new possibilities and opportunities. Now, that is a goal worth striving for.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.