December 24, 2016

Where are all the social services workers going?

Governing -Turnover in public-sector jobs is a ubiquitous problem. But when it comes to social services, the problem is particularly painful.

One well-known study found that with one caseworker, the chance for a child to achieve a permanent and stable living situation was 74 percent. If a child had two caseworkers in one year, the odds dropped to 17 percent. With three caseworkers, it was a mere 5 percent.

“Turnover is devastating,” said Scott McCown, a former judge and now director of the Children’s Rights Center at the University of Texas Law School. “If you’re a caseworker, you develop a relationship with the parent and child. That’s what helps you help them. But every time there’s turnover, you start from scratch.”

If clients find themselves working with a different social services worker every few months, their confidence in their care and willingness to comply with bureaucracy can be lost. Constant workforce churn costs not just clients hope but governments money. Training a new social services worker costs $54,000, according to the Texas Senate Committee on Finance.

Once turnover persists, it creates conditions that lead to a seemingly never-ending cycle: experienced caseworkers don’t have time to mentor new ones, caseloads increase, backlogs develop, tempers flare, pressures rise and burnout shows no signs of fading.

This is an issue in most of America, but in some places, it has recently reached crisis levels.

In Kentucky, a third of the social services workforce in the state’s largest county has been lost to turnover since January. Tim Feeley, the deputy secretary for health and family services, said the county has reached “the breaking point.” In Texas, an auditor’s report last year found that social services had the highest turnover of all job categories -- 25 percent of employees were jumping ship within one year.

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