Underprepared Staff Are Doing the Most Difficult Work in Child Welfare

Direct care staff who work with youth are our most immediate front line of support for youth who require additional adult intervention in school-based and residential environments. However, through no fault of their own, these individuals are on average the most undertrained, undersupervised, underpaid and seemingly undervalued paid professionals our youth come in contact with.

Now more than ever, with the COVID-19 pandemic exposing the vulnerabilities of the industry, it is time to invest in providing the tools, skills and knowledge these often-young professionals need for the job.

If we truly wish to put our best foot forward in changing the lives of vulnerable children, we must recognize the fact that all adults who interact with youth living in high cost care settings need exceptional training, supervision and ongoing professional development and growth. We must understand that this is intensely personal and complicated work that requires encouragement, constant reflection, validation, correction and overall support.

The work itself is emotionally taxing and complex, and it is the job of the organization to provide space and opportunity for these professionals to reflect, grow and develop. These staff are placing themselves in the face of personal danger to their own health as well as family and friends. Facilities around the world are now reporting staff who have been infected, and several who have lost their lives.

This crisis shines a light on the critical and too often undervalued professionals in our communities. A lesson that must be learned is to make new significant investments in these critical workers who care for young people.

The title “direct care staff” generally refers to staff who spend their work day providing direct supervision and counseling interventions to youth in congregate care, as well as youth in public and private school classrooms, crisis centers and juvenile halls. These positions tend to be a new employee’s first foray into direct paid work with youth.

As these positions are “foot in the door” positions, they are generally occupied by recent college graduates looking to learn about the field, as well as gain experience and direction to determine their future professional path.

Given the depth of the work and the general lack of initial experience of new direct care staff, it is incumbent on the organization to provide them with the necessary supports to offer quality care and interventions.

In the mental health field, California’s recent Continuum of Care legislation required that direct care staff working with youth in residential treatment receive 40 hours of ongoing training per year. But historically, trainings in these programs have focused on understanding daily tasks and program and school policies.

What’s needed are trainings that support staff in understanding the needs of vulnerable youth, the definition of and impact of trauma on the brain and body, awareness of implicit bias, and myriad topics that would bolster the staff’s understanding and abilities to do the work that they came into the field determined to do. A lack of focused training, supervision and support leads to poor quality care for youth, frustration on the part of the workers regarding “the system” and high levels of turnover as we lose once dedicated individuals.

If we want to provide the real life-changing support that youth need, organizations need to commit to developing structured, robust professional development and supervision processes that are focused on providing direct care staff with a concrete vision and framework, respecting their life experience, and devoted to quality care for youth. In this age of the coronavirus, some direct care staff have literally lost their lives in service to youth in the system. We owe them more than weekly trainings and sporadic supervisor check-ins.

We can provide direction for people coming into the field that allows them to struggle, stumble, and have a difficult time in this most difficult work without floundering, becoming disgruntled and retreating from it. Working in partnership we can develop powerful communities of helping adults, growing together, learning together and providing a safe space for vulnerable children to do the same.


 Kevin King is the training director for Seneca Family of Agencies based in California. 

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