Frequent foster care caseworker turnover is a plague on the child welfare system because it affects the health and well-being of children. The goal is to achieve “permanency,” which means the foster child is ultimately placed in a permanent family situation via biological family reunification or adoption.
According to a Milwaukee County caseworker turnover impact study, children who have one case worker achieve permanency 74.5 percent of the time. With two caseworkers the chance of permanency decreases to 17.5 percent. For those with six or seven case workers, the chances of leaving the foster care system before becoming an adult are almost nil.
To combat the social worker retention issue, child welfare veterans Barry Chaffkin and Viviane DeMilly of Fostering Change for Children launched Children’s Corps, a two-year program that selects, trains and supports case workers who are then placed with agencies throughout New York City. According to Chaffkin, who is also an adjunct lecturer at Columbia University’s School of Social Work:
“When one case worker leaves, another has to absorb the case load. Our city-wide foster care case worker turnover rate is about 40 percent. Compare that to the average non-profit turnover rate of 11 percent. Such high turnover means a lot of case workers are carrying far too many cases. It impacts morale. The worker is stressed and simply cannot provide the same level of service to the children and families. That’s when children get lost in the system.”
Now in its fourth year, Children’s Corps has achieved 12 percent caseworker turnover, which equates to a 28 percentage point improvement over the New York City average. Key to Children’s Corps’ success is the sophisticated competency assessments used to select its participants (called “members.”)
Chaffkin and DeMilly took the competencies of the most effective child welfare workers, as determined by a University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service study, and augmented it with characteristics from their own research. Success characteristics include empathy, adaptability, flexibility, creative thinking, openness to learning, non-judgement, dedication, time management and resiliency, among others.
“Children’s Corps creates future leaders in child welfare,” said Chaffkin. “We introduce the child welfare field to people who may not have considered it. We provide more intense training and ongoing support to those in the front lines.”
Children’s Corps recruits aggressively on nearly 200 school job boards. They also conduct in-person recruitment at New York City-area schools. The entire process of finding, interviewing and hiring new members takes about three months, and Chaffkin and DeMilly conduct all of the interviews personally. Salaries for the two-year program vary by agency and range from $34,000 to $42,000 per year for a Bachelor’s degree level worker.
Corps members are paid directly by the agencies for which they work and receive the same salaries, health coverage and retirement benefits as other beginning caseworkers at their respective agencies.
“In New York City, if you have a Bachelor’s degree and interpersonal skills, you can become a caseworker because they are so badly needed,” said DeMilly. “Once hired, the case worker can receive a full caseload with the very minimum of training. The case worker may receive training at some point, but no matter who you are, handling the complexities of these very vulnerable families is difficult for even the most experienced worker.”
Vassar graduate Ilena Robbins originally wanted to attend law school. After a stint as a paralegal, her goals shifted to child welfare and dreams of a Masters in Social Work. She got accepted into the first Children’s Corps cohort in 2011. After training and placement, she found herself working in a high stress situation.
“Shortly after joining the agency, I had to cover for a co-worker on maternity leave,” said Robbins. “I had about 30 cases when the others had about 10. I was crying every day. Children’s Corps called my agency’s CEO and intervened on my behalf. I was moved into a much better situation.”
Today Robbins continues to work in child welfare and is pursuing her MSW from Hunter College. “Children’s Corps changed my life. I wouldn’t have pursued my MSW without them because I would have been turned off after that first negative agency experience.”
Not all Children’s Corps members are recent grads; some have switched careers. Margaret Woollatt spent 10 years in publishing before joining Children’s Corps. “Corporate life wasn’t for me, and I’d always been interested in social justice,” said Woollatt.
The training, support and best practice sharing all stand out as program benefits to Woollatt. “ACS [Administration for Children’s Services] training focuses on compliance and agency requirements. In Children’s Corps, I learned to listen to the family, to avoid being adversarial and not to take things personally,” said Woollatt.
It was this training that gave Woollatt the patience to avoid involving the police when removing a three-year-old girl from a home. “After nearly 10 hours of working on this emergency situation, I finally called a friend at a bigger agency, and we found an alternative foster parent living in the same building,” she said. “I didn’t have to call the police to remove the child, and we avoided a situation that might have traumatized her.”
Woollatt has decided to make a career in child welfare. Children’s Corps gave her the support to apply for Rutgers’ part-time Master’s program to which she was accepted. “It all fell into place because I had the right support,” said Woollatt.
Leah Burdick is an adoptive mom and founder of the Foster Coalition, a group that advocates for and works to elevate the national consciousness about foster care. She has an MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University.