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Alabama struggles to keep child welfare workers on job: ‘We’re treading water’

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Alabama Department of Human Resources Commissioner Nancy Buckner talks about the agency's difficulties with high turnover rate among child welfare workers.

Alabama Department of Human Resources Commissioner Nancy Buckner talks about the agency's difficulties with high turnover rate among child welfare workers. 

Alabama is struggling to keep the state employees who help protect its most vulnerable citizens.

For the last few years, child welfare workers are leaving faster than the Alabama Department of Human Resources can hire replacements, a problem that is accelerating.

During the 2021 fiscal year, DHR hired 335 case workers and 466 left. The turnover rate for the year was 46 percent. This fiscal year, through Aug. 15, the turnover rate was 54 percent. That means the number of case workers leaving the agency equaled 54 percent of the child welfare staff.

“We’re treading water,” said Nancy Buckner, state DHR commissioner for 14 years. “And our nose is still above water. But I’m not going to say that we don’t go under every now and then in certain counties.”

DHR provides child welfare services and other programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously called food stamps, through offices in the state’s 67 counties. Buckner said most counties are having staffing problems in child welfare, including Jefferson, Mobile, Montgomery, and some smaller counties. Buckner said the staffing problems are the worst she can recall.

“We’ve had to deploy staff from other counties to help counties that were short-staffed, particularly in child welfare,” Buckner said. “So we’ve shifted around a lot. It’s to the point right now where our bench is not very deep anymore. All counties pretty much are experiencing staffing shortages because they can’t find the people to hire.

“I lost one worker to a paint store. I lost one to a restaurant. And then we’ve recently lost some to other agencies. Sometimes they pay more but their hours are a whole lot different than these child welfare workers hours. If you can go home at 3:30 every day, you’ve got small children, you’re off a lot more than you are at DHR.”

DHR responds to reports of child abuse and neglect, often from teachers, law enforcement, or health care providers.

“They could report that mom’s leaving the kids home alone while she’s going out,” Buckner said. “They could report that the child is running out of the house into the street. A lot of times they report there is a child walking down the highway, the child looks like they’re about 5 years old and nobody is with them, the cars are just going back and forth all over the place. They could report that they think there is something wrong between mom’s 12-year-old daughter and the relationship with uncle so-and-so. They could report that some family member is giving the child alcohol.”

Case workers knock on doors to investigate the complaints. They are often, but not always, accompanied by law enforcement. If complaints are substantive, case workers help determine the level of risk for the children and the best course of action, work that requires judgement and courage.

“We see families at their worst times,” Buckner said. “Things aren’t going right when DHR gets called. Something is going on, generally. I’m not saying there’s something to everything because sometimes there’s not and we figure that out.”

Buckner said the intent is to keep children at home if that’s feasible.

“If the child can safely be maintained where the child is, then that’s what we want to do,” Buckner said. “But if not we have to find some alternative arrangements. If the child has to come out of her home, we always look for family first to see if maybe mom or dad can let the child go stay with grandmother or aunt or something like that. As a last resort, we look at foster care.”

DHR requires a four-year college degree in any major for entry-level case workers. Higher-level positions require a degree in social work, but there are not enough licensed social workers to meet the demand for the child welfare case workers, Buckner said.

Starting pay is $36,000. Buckner said higher pay would help. The levels of stress and difficulty of the work is a major factor that makes it hard to hire and keep case workers, she said.

Case workers confront hostile and sometimes violent parents, biting dogs, the risk of lawsuits, and a more recent job hazard, vicious attacks on social media.

“You can’t respond because you can’t win those battles,” Buckner said. “Plus, what you do is confidential. We have workers that have gotten threatened because of social media comments.”

Jackie Graham, who works with all Alabama state agencies as director of the State Personnel Department, said child welfare jobs rank among the most difficult positions to hire and retain workers.

“That’s an extremely difficult job,” Graham said. “There are a lot of things you can teach someone and train someone but until they actually have to fill one of those positions you just don’t understand the complexity and the difficulty of it.”

Other state agencies face serious shortages, including the state prison system and the Department of Mental Health.

“I think when you speak of mental health workers and the social service case workers and social workers, as well as correctional officers, those are very difficult jobs,” Graham said. “So agencies such as DHR, Mental Health, and Corrections are going to have a difficult time recruiting those positions.”

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Graham said there are 507 applicants for case worker jobs on the state Personnel Department’s register. That is a statewide list, so the numbers of candidates are fewer for individual counties, who go through state DHR to hire employees.

Buckner said DHR removed one academic requirement about a year ago, a requirement for at least about 20 hours in a social science.

“County directors are telling me they’re seeing a few more people on the registers now than they did,” Buckner said. “We haven’t seen the full effect of that yet.”

Case workers perform multiple tasks, including managing cases once children enter the foster care system. The goal is stability and ultimately, returning to family if that is feasible. There are other responsibilities, like finding placements for children after natural disasters and, for example, if parents from out of state die in a wreck on an Alabama highway.

“We protect a lot of children. And we reunite a lot of children with families,” Buckner said.

“Case workers can do intake (take reports), they can do investigations, or they can do foster care. It’s turning and it’s turning so fast we can’t really separate them out and keep it all going.

The problem of hiring and keeping case workers is not confined to Alabama.

“I can say that retaining new child welfare workers has been a long-time nationwide challenge,” Brenda Smith, a professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Alabama, said in an email responding to questions about DHR’s staffing problems.

“Evidence suggests that new child welfare workers are more likely to stay in their positions when they feel supported by supervisors and the organizations. Supportive organizational environments, perceptions of fair treatment, and adequate pay can all promote caseworker retention.”

UA is studying an innovative model in which new child welfare workers receive regular sessions with “coaches” from outside their agency.

“Most are folks who retired after careers in child welfare,” Smith said. “They have lots of valuable child welfare experience plus substantial training in coaching.”

The coaches give support and encouragement. Smith said the early results are promising, suggesting that coaching could support new workers and promote retention.

Leah Cheatham, associate professor at the school of social work at UA, said the high turnover rate among child welfare workers has serious consequences. Cheatham has done research on the well-being of transition-age youth leaving foster care, with particular focus on youth with disabilities.

“Without enough qualified, caring individuals in these positions, caseloads quickly become unmanageable,” Cheatham said in an email. “High caseloads make it all the more challenging for workers to perform the essential duties of their jobs: ensuring safety, permanency, and well-being of youth. When caseworkers can’t function well in their jobs, it’s understandable that they would consider making a career shift. Unfortunately, caseworker turnover in the child welfare system has outsized consequences for the youth our system aims to protect.”

Cheatham said research suggests that case worker turnover leads to more moves for foster children from one foster home to another, instability that can make it harder for children to succeed in school and increase the likelihood of mental and behavioral health problems, and in the worst cases, suicide.

“Youth who enter the child welfare system are no strangers to instability in their lives,” Cheatham said. “Yet, the child welfare system that was designed to intervene often perpetuates similar experiences of instability. After suffering abuse or neglect at the hands of trusted adults, youth are thrust into a system where consistently present adults may be scarce. Without stability, youth may never develop supportive relationships that we know are critical to success in early adulthood.”

Buckner said DHR is working to boost morale and help with the stress levels. The agency provides a $4 per hour pay supplement for workers when they take their turns in the rotation to be on call after hours and through weekends. DHR is providing some leased cars for case workers to use in some cases when they are called out to investigate a report.

Buckner, a former case worker and county DHR manager, said the job of helping children in crises is hard but also rewarding.

“We have some folks that stay and retire,” Buckner said. “It’s kind of like a calling especially in the child welfare arena because of the ups and downs and changes that go on within your own caseload every day.

“There’s lots of emergencies. But there’s lots of gratifications to it, too, when you’re successful. Seventy-three percent of our children go back to relatives, which is wonderful. That shows the good work that our staff have done out there.”

But Buckner said the turnover, as UA associate professor Cheatham noted, means that cases are reassigned to other workers who are already carrying full caseloads.

“I think we’re going to have to figure out a better way to do this and we’re going to have to figure out a way to entice people to come and do the work,” Buckner said. “We have a lot of folks that are doing it because they love doing it. They really do. So you’ve got to have a heart for it.

“But then, you have to think about your own family. And in doing that, you’ve got to give them something to pull them to continue to do this work. It may be money. It may be certain kinds of benefits that they need to be able to stay with DHR. If our turnover rate continues to go up, it’s going to be hard to sustain all the good things that we’re doing.”

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