Brianne Kothari

Brianne Kothari, assistant professor at OSU-Cascades and lead author of the child welfare caseworker retention study.

Former child welfare caseworker Danielle Grimes is well-versed in the profession’s challenges and heartbreak.

“Having to take custody of children who aren’t safe — that is the most stressful event that a protective services worker can go through emotionally, physically and mentally,” said Grimes, who now serves as the Community Development Coordinator for the Oregon Department of Human Services.

“You’re asked to do so many things all at once. Filing paperwork with the courts while also notifying a parent that that’s occurring, and that’s often the worst day of a parent’s life,” she continued. “It’s very hard to be the catalyst in that, even if it’s 100% the right thing to do for that child’s safety.”

She remembers how her supervisor supported her when she started as a caseworker in Deschutes County. She encouraged Grimes, then a new mom, “to take care of myself and my family because you can’t pour from an empty cup,” she said.

Between 30% and 40% of caseworkers leave the profession, and the average tenure for caseworkers is less than two years, according to the National Association of Social Workers. That supervisor’s support helped Grimes from burning out and seeking a new career.

Grimes’ experience is an example of an approach that can lead to caseworker retention, according to a recent Oregon State University-Cascades study, where researchers examined factors that keep child welfare caseworkers from jumping ship.

“We know from a lot of research that it’s important to have a strong and dedicated child welfare workforce,” said Brianne Kothari, an assistant professor at OSU-Cascades and lead author of the study. “What we also know is that turnover and burnout are really high among these workers. Instead of focusing on workers that leave and trying to understand workers who leave, in this study, we really tried to focus on understanding child welfare workers who are satisfied and intend to stay.”

According to Kothari, agencies that equipped and supported supervisors, celebrated worker successes and provided up-to-date technology saw more satisfied caseworkers and less turnover.

In practice, it looks like supervisors setting clear goals and expectations, giving clear feedback on job performance and providing positive recognition for a job well done, co-workers providing emotional support for their colleagues, and agencies making sure that caseworkers have proper technology that allows them to do their jobs efficiently, Kothari said.

Researchers hope child welfare agencies will be able to use the study’s findings to support caseworkers and reduce high turnover rates and burnout in the field because less turnover means better support for children and families.

“Caseworkers have very challenging jobs, but some are satisfied with the work despite its challenges, and they intend to stay,” said co-author Kelly Chandler, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “If we want to improve continuity in terms of service to children and families in the community, it’s important to not only minimize the job challenges that are inevitable but also think about which employees are really thriving, and what we can learn from them.”

The study was conducted via a confidential online survey that was sent out to all social service specialist caseworkers in Oregon Department of Human Services in 2018, and is part of a larger collaboration between OSU and Oregon Department of Human Services, which seeks to use data to improve child welfare and other community services statewide, Kothari said.

Additional work

Kothari and Grimes are also part of multiple workgroups that are collecting and evaluating data to help improve Oregon Department of Human Services care in Central Oregon. The workgroups include collaborations between the nonprofit Every Child Central Oregon, TRACES Central Oregon and Westside Church.

“I’m engaged in a lot of these statewide efforts and projects with researchers at the statewide level, but also engaged with these community partners locally, to try and figure out how to make positive change here in this region,” Kothari said.

“Most of the workgroups in Deschutes County I’m a part of are focused on how we support the system and how we cultivate the system, because I think a lot of the issues surrounding employee longevity, happiness and retention directly correlate back to us needing more supportive community services for the families that we are entrusted with meeting with,” Grimes said.

“As child welfare workers, we are constantly talking about better ways we can all collaborate as a community,” Grimes said.

The Central Oregon workgroups are receiving attention from statewide organizations for their innovative approach to finding solutions to challenges child welfare workers face, Kothari said.

“There’s a growing list of collaborators involved in the workgroups that are really dedicated to determining ways to make a difference in children’s and families’ lives here in this region,” Kothari said.

“It’s really hard work,” Grimes said, “but it’s such important work.”

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