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December 2020Vol. 21, No. 9Use What You Have: Supporting the Child Welfare Workforce During a Disaster

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

The past year's public health crisis and natural disasters have been especially challenging for the child welfare workforce. Throughout the year, child welfare workers had to adapt to working remotely while supporting families and keeping children, families, and themselves safe. In response, many agencies have proactively sought creative ways to use and strengthen existing resources and relationships to support their workforce while moving the agency's work forward.

The following suggestions reflect some of the most prominent lessons learned throughout the past year about how to support child welfare workers during a crisis or disaster.

Build on Existing Technological Resources

Challenge: Throughout 2020, use of remote technology emerged as a key component of workers' ability to keep children and families safe and continue their regular work with families. However, some agencies faced barriers related to lack of resources and familiarity with this mode of working.

Solution: When looking for ways to support their workforce during a time of crisis, some agencies realized they could use technological resources or programs already in place. For example, in 2017, Washington State's Department of Children, Youth, and Families, working with the Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development (QIC-WD), implemented a telework program to address low worker retention (QIC-WD, n.d.). When the agency was asked to shut down its physical offices in March 2020, administrators realized they could modify the existing program to streamline the application process and allow more workers to telework (QIC-WD, 2020a).

For more information on supporting virtual work, check out the Center for States' publications Knowledge Management Research: Telework in Child Welfare and Knowledge Management Research: Virtual Meetings in Child Welfare.

Use Existing Relationships to Facilitate a Change in Process

Challenge: Working offsite during a time of crisis or natural disaster challenged supervisors to identify new ways to support a remote workforce.

Solution: Throughout the year, managers and supervisors built on existing positive relationships with their staff to maintain and strengthen the supervisory process. Approaching the supervisory relationship with empathy and flexibility was one key strategy (National Child Welfare Workforce Institute [NCWWI], 2020b). Other strategies included the following (QIC-WD, 2020b):

  • Staying in frequent contact by phone, email, or an online meeting platform
  • Celebrating successes frequently in one-on-one meetings or team huddles
  • Establishing regular, frequent meetings with each supervisee and being available for additional meetings as needed
  • Monitoring supervisees' mental health and offering supports as needed

Encourage a Focus on Self-Care and Personal Safety

Challenge: In 2020, pandemics and natural disasters significantly impacted the health and well-being of all populations. Child welfare staff, in particular, continued to work with families and children under difficult new conditions while facing potential personal stressors such as health crises, social isolation, child care management, and psychological distress (Barbee, 2020; NCWWI, 2020a). They also potentially experienced overwork and fatigue due to the challenges created by the crisis or disaster (Barbee, 2020).

Solution: Under these circumstances, agencies helped their staff deal with situational stress in the following ways:

  • Offering a space and time to discuss challenges and concerns and process emotions (Barbee, 2020)
  • Using technology to facilitate flexible work arrangements to help staff manage their work-life balance during the crisis or disaster (NCWWI, 2020c)
  • Implementing clear safety measures when workers return to the office (NCWWI, 2020c)

By building on existing relationships and resources, child welfare agencies can help their staff remain healthy and productive, even during a crisis or disaster. Visit the Capacity Building Center for States webpage Building Capacity for Disaster Preparedness at a Child Welfare Agency to learn how child welfare agencies can build the capacity to pivot in response to any disaster.


Barbee, A. (2020, June 30). What we know about pandemics and the stress they cause. Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development.

National Child Welfare Workforce Institute. (2020a). Facing the pandemic with emotional agility.

National Child Welfare Workforce Institute. (2020b). Virtually supervising child welfare professionals during a pandemic.

National Child Welfare Workforce Institute. (2020c). What child welfare workers need in a pandemic.

Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development. (n.d.). Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families.

Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development. (2020a, April 2). Washington progress update: Telework in action.

Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development. (2020b, September 28). Working from home and the office during a pandemic: The experience of Louisiana child welfare workers.