Burnout Drives National Exodus of Child, Youth and Family Service Workers

Providing services to children, youth and families as a social worker or case manager is a rewarding, fulfilling career. However, extenuating, chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors between such workers and those in need of services lends this sector of health and human services a bad stereotype. Children and youth may be the victims of child abuse, and continuing changing of assigned social workers can heighten the risk for child abuse, leaving some to fall through the cracks in the system.

This is a national problem. Reports of understaffing and high turnover rates among social workers for children, youth and families, as explained by The Dallas Morning News have been documented throughout the Lone Star State. But, the same problem continues throughout the country, including Ohio, California, Florida and beyond. Unfortunately, the confluence of these areas has created a crisis for the nation’s child welfare system, and you need to know a few things about it.


Exactly How Bad Is Turnover in Services For Children, Youth and Families?

Turnover rates among service providers for this group of people depends on the regional area. But, some jurisdictions may have annual turnover rates up to 90 percent, reports the Child Welfare Information Gateway (CWIG). Some may argue high turnover only affects new, incoming employees. Yet, senior managers and administrators are leaving at the same pace.

On the surface, the problem seems like it only affects the back end of an organization, reflecting changing roles and new hiring, but it leads to problems among children and youth who need services. For example, it breeds distrust and a sense of abandonment, increasing the risk for future denial of child abuse or dangerous, harmful situations. So, you need to think about what is causing workers to leave the industry.


What’s Driving Child and Youth Social Workers Out of the Field?

Being a Social Worker For Children and Youth Can Be Dangerous

Being a case manager or social worker is more than a paper-pushing field inspector. They are often the frontline workers and emergency responders to potential issues that can impact a child’s health, as well as his or her physical and mental development, reports the Dayton Daily News. This may include investigating allegations of child abuse, such as sexual abuse, physical abuse and verbal or emotional trauma. Thus, social workers may not be looked upon favorably by the family under investigation.

For example, a case manager for a family may encounter highly emotionally charged situations during a home visit. Consequently, parents or other guardians may become violent when a case worker acts on behalf of children, such as the removal of children from the home. Clearly, emotions can impair parents’ judgment, yet the risk is still there.

Meanwhile, children may not want to leave the home. They may kick, scream, spit, yell, hit or bite in protest, and if something goes wrong, court proceedings and the jury of public opinion can leave social workers feeling worthless and demoralized.


Residential Campuses and Service Centers May Not Adhere to Regulations.

In some cases, removal of children and placement in the foster care system may not meet the children’s demand for safety and quality care. In February 2016, a children’s foster campus in Lubbock, Texas, Children’s Hope Residential Services, was shut down because of multiple compliance violations. Per the Lubbock Avalanche Journal (Lubbock AJ), children who lived at the campus recounted horrid tales of not having clothing, beds, access to hygiene and possible abuse.

Although no allegations of physical or sexual abuse are mentioned, some children were reportedly told to bathe or otherwise care for other children. In another case, a worker pulled a child’s hair as punishment, reports KCBD News.

This is not acceptable, and the Lubbock AJ suggests workers were being required to report misconduct of children even when behaviors were appropriate. While this report may be rare, it highlights how greed on behalf of some care campuses may be contributing to a greater distrust and lost sense of faith in the field. It is important to note that many of these claims were never substantiated, but officials did shut down the facility.


Wages Remain Stagnant

Salary is another reason many social workers and case managers are leaving the field. Residential treatment facilities for children receive between $16,490 and $54,060 per child annually to provide care, depending on the level of care required. But, annual wages of residential care facility social workers were $38,840, explains the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Compared to the wages of elementary and secondary school social workers, $60,750, it is not hard to see why so many workers choose to leave.


High Child-to-Caseworker Ratios

The child to caseworker ratio remains high at 28 to 1. Although this represents a slight drop from its peak of 31 to 1, it is still unacceptable. Think about this scenario:

A social worker must see 28 children twice per month. That works out to 14 children per week. Assuming travel time between appointments, such as in-home visits, takes 45 minutes, that leaves approximately 30 hours to complete the checks and necessary paperwork. If paperwork for each child requires one hour to complete after leaving the home, then only 16 hours can be spent with the child. That does not count possible appearances in court or the filing of other motions to protect children.

Now, do you think a child can learn to trust someone when they only see the person for less than one hour every other week?

I see the cashier at my grocery store more often than that, and I still don’t know her name or who she really is. 

Imagine what a young child or adolescent feels in a similar period.


The Big Picture

The driving forces behind the exodus from child welfare services has formed the perfect storm. Social workers and case managers are leaving the field in droves as stress levels rise, public pressure mounts and resources become scare. Thus, turnover rates in your organization may reflect this exodus, but if you take time to consider what’s causing it, you can work to stop it.

In other words, reevaluate the wages of your team members to bring them in alignment with industry standards. Make workers feel appreciated and safe, and give your workers the tools they need through intense training modules to be successful and helpful to children, youth and families in need. It may not seem like a major change, but it’s a stepping stone to reducing burnout and turnover in an at-risk industry.

Jason Vanover

Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

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