Caseworkers: Overworked and on the Decline

Caseworker overload and high turnover rates are frequent issues within child welfare. Unmanageable workloads impact the ability of caseworkers to provide adequate services and achieve positive outcomes for children and families, according to the Child Welfare League of America. Caseworkers who are overburdened have less time to allocate toward each family and, therefore, caseworker-client relationships falter.

Typical caseloads vary from agency to agency and from state to state, however, the average caseload for child welfare workers is between 24 and 31 children (National Association of Social Workers, 2004). A 2005 study in Illinois found that caseworkers could have no more than 15 cases per month in order to complete all legal and policy requirements. High caseloads not only affect quality of work, but also often lead to emotional exhaustion and job dissatisfaction.

These, along with feeling overwhelmed and ineffective, are primary factors for caseworker turnover. Annual turnover rates below 10–12% are considered optimal or healthy, according to Casey Family Programs. However, a 2018 study analyzing data of caseworkers in the child welfare workforce between 2003 and 2015 estimated that the average state has an annual caseworker turnover rate of 14-22%. In Ohio, approximately 1 in 4 caseworkers left their position in 2016 and 2017, according to an article from the Columbus Dispatch.

Staff turnover is costly for welfare agencies. Recruitment and training costs, worker overtime, worker separation, failure to meet federal performance standards and processing changes in placement are among the many costs associated with caseworker turnover. The expenses accrued after a caseworker leaves are estimated at 30-200% of the existing caseworker’s annual salary, and the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute concludes that the combined costs to replace one caseworker total $54,000.

What can be done to improve retention of caseworkers? Addressing caseload stress by hiring enough caseworkers to allow for and assign manageable workloads should be considered. Child welfare caseworkers who are gradually given a full caseload are more likely to stay than caseworkers who are given a full caseload immediately upon hire.

The Child Welfare League of America recommends that workplaces should consider gradually assigning cases, offering comprehensive training and supporting workers, including peer mentoring and mental health services. Lastly, the creation of a healthy working environment with reliable administrative support, staff recognition and appreciation have been shown to decrease caseworker turnover and bolster recruitment efforts.