America is facing a child welfare workforce crisis. Some child welfare agencies are reporting vacancies as high as 35-45 percent of their workforce, particularly among investigators of child abuse and neglect. Turnover rates have soared, with studies showing that almost half of child welfare staff leave their jobs within two years. Schools of social work are also reporting drops in enrollment, which means the pipeline for future child welfare workers is also shrinking.
Child welfare professionals care deeply about family preservation – safeguarding families in the midst of crisis, connecting them to supports, and addressing immediate needs to alleviate stress and help families thrive so children can safely remain at home. And that is why the Connecticut Department of Children and Families joined the National Partnership for Child Safety to help examine ways to address the stresses on the workforce while maintaining a strong focus and emphasis on safety and family well-being.
Significant stressors that can impact the child welfare workforce include high caseloads, work-related traumatic stress, taking care of your own family, and emotional exhaustion, but an underlying stressor that is rarely addressed is the impact of intense media scrutiny.
A study from Berkeley Media Studies Group found that a majority of reporters cover the child welfare system solely through a crime lens. According to the study: “News about the child welfare system was driven by tragic stories of individual cases of harm and death, painting a picture of a system that is failing, inadequate, or, at best, overwhelmed. When solutions to issues in the child welfare system were discussed, the focus was on punitive, after-the-fact measures in response to high-profile incidents.”
All too often, these stories feature quotes and comments from law enforcement officials rather than child welfare professionals. They generate a very common cycle in child welfare coverage: the tragic story of a child death known to the child welfare system makes headlines in local media coverage (and sometime national coverage depending on the facts of the case). Local politicians are moved to act and child welfare agency leaders either lose their jobs or depart under the intense scrutiny. The leadership changes but the system stays the same.
This punitive and reactive finger-pointing can lead to risk aversion among child welfare workers and has increased rates of family separations, even as rates of child fatalities do not decrease. The fear of scrutiny or “getting it wrong” leads some professionals to leave child welfare work altogether, and the prevailing narrative of child welfare work through a crime lens means many young students, who are interested in social work, ultimately chose other professions.
That is not to say that scrutiny in the face a child death is not warranted. In fact, the opposite is true, but with the caveat that scrutiny and stories about what went wrong should be accompanied by a focus on solutions. Too often, this scrutiny lacks any context for improving child welfare systems leaving readers to believe that these child deaths are simply inevitable.
And that is one of the reasons that led to the Connecticut Department of Children and Families joining the National Partnership for Child Safety, a quality improvement collaborative formed in 2018. Working in partnership with 33 state, county and tribal child-serving agencies across the nation, Connecticut and other jurisdictions are working to apply safety science to the goal of reducing child maltreatment and child fatalities.
When the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities released its groundbreaking 2016 report, Commission Chair David Sanders noted at the time: “Child protection is perhaps the only field where some child deaths are assumed to be inevitable, no matter how hard we work to stop them. This is certainly not true in the airline industry, where safety is paramount and commercial airline crashes are never seen as inevitable.”
As an evidence-based field of discipline, safety science expands the scope of learning beyond an individual case to a systemwide comprehensive analysis. In the context of child welfare, it utilizes a standardized critical incident review process, coupled with data analysis across multiple jurisdictions to identify systemic challenges that serve as barriers to child safety and the goal of children safely remaining at home, surrounded by those with whom they have the closest relationships.
In essence, safety science provides a framework and processes for child protection agencies to understand the inherently complex nature of the work and the factors that influence decision-making. It also provides a safe and supportive environment for professionals to process, share and learn from critical incidents to prevent additional tragedies. Psychological safety is essential to this process by demonstrating an agency’s commitment to identifying systemic causes of failure rather than seeking to assign blame to workers. This then enables workers to participate in a culture of learning that can help us better understand how and why decisions were made and shift the focus to system improvements that will have a greater long-term impact on saving lives than simply hitting the reset button on a trained child welfare workforce.
Data collection is another important part of the work of the NPCS. In Connecticut, led by Deputy Commissioner Jodi Hill-Lilly, who is a co-chair for the NPCS, child welfare leaders have already begun the data exchange process with other jurisdictions, both locally and nationally. The data is collected as part of a Special Qualitative Review process that is initiated after a child fatality or near fatality to assess all components of case practice and adherence to policy and strengths. The NPCS is then able to extrapolate major themes across the data, such as actionable steps, to help generate a learning forum to examine outcomes and make recommendations for practice and system improvements.
Media outlets can play an important role in helping us achieve our greater goal of an improved child welfare system and effective workforce by widening the lens with which you view child welfare and by focusing on ways in which child welfare systems are supporting the shift to a preventative, population health approach. This includes advancing safety culture and promoting evidence-based family-preserving practices such as home visiting and increasing access to economic supports for families.
Ultimately, this work will help to strengthen families, promote innovations in safety culture, and, most importantly, reduce and potentially prevent future tragedies from child maltreatment.
Michael Cull, PhD, is an associate director at the Center for Innovation in Population Health and associate professor in the Department of Health Management and Policy at the University of Kentucky. Tiffany Lindsey, Ed.D., LPC-MHSP, is an assistant professor with the Center for Innovation in Population Health at the University of Kentucky (UK).