By William Browning
Every day thousands of child welfare workers throughout the Commonwealth make decisions that no one should ever have to make regarding the life or death of children.
First, if they remove a child incorrectly, they risk severing relationships that research and experience tell us will likely sentence children to poverty, an increased risk of incarceration and on average, 20 years off a child’s life expectancy. Second, if they fail to remove a child from a potentially dangerous situation, the child may die.
No one should have to make these decisions, yet we ask caseworkers to make them every day. For these life-altering decisions that can change a child’s life trajectory in an instant, caseworkers receive low salaries sometimes as low as $32,000 a year while working long hours.
Because of this, child welfare agencies experience a high degree of staff turnover, in one county I know staff turnover in one year was over 60 percent further increasing the stressors to those workers who remain through higher caseloads and increased crises.
Legislation sponsored by Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Luzerne, that offers student loan forgiveness for child welfare workers is a positive step towards retaining qualified workers. The bill is now before the House Children & Youth Committee.
As it’s currently written, this bill will forgive student loans up to $50,000 for child welfare workers who remain in a child welfare agency for three years after finishing their degree. Numerous studies have shown that benefits are given to workers requiring a payback period to increase the likelihood of that worker staying even after the payback obligation.
Aside from the social cost of an inexperienced and understaffed workforce jeopardizing children’s safety, the financial burden is astronomical. According to one study, the cost of turnover is up to 200% of the annual salary of the worker. Also, high turnover results in the unending cycle of high caseloads, worker burnout, low staff resignations, high caseloads, etc.
Before 2005 in Lackawanna County, the turnover rate was up to 50 percent resulting in higher caseloads which lead to a large number of children being placed in foster care and costly and dehumanizing institutions. This led my agency to be millions of dollars over budget every single year.
This is a cycle that is not unique to Lackawanna County, but one that repeats itself through the Commonwealth’ 67 child welfare agencies.
Since engaging in monumental reform over the last 15 years, we decreased staff turnover to well under 10 percent which is below the state and national average and in doing so we have greatly improved the outcomes for children and families in Lackawanna County.
Because of the stability of the workforce, foster placements have been safely reduced and institutional placements are an anomaly. Consequently, we can spend at 2005 levels while still experiencing the increased annual operational costs that every business and organization experiences.
This could not have been accomplished without reducing the turnover rate.
Toohil’s legislation provides a fiscally responsible tool to lower turnover statewide and improve services to children and families in a manner that is much quicker than the 15-year journey that Lackawanna County embarked upon.
As a society, we cannot turn a blind eye to caseworkers who are our states first responders to childhood trauma.
I’m asking House Children and Youth Committee Chairwoman Karen Boback, R-Luzerne, who is also my state representative, to schedule a hearing on this important bill, so that all vulnerable children and families in Pennsylvania can thrive.
William Browning is the executive director of the Lackawanna County Department of Human Services. He writes from Scranton.