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July/August 2023Vol. 24, No. 6Stressed About Employee Stress? Three Ways to Support Child Welfare Worker Retention

Written by Katie Biron and the Capacity Building Center for States

Child welfare work can be incredibly rewarding and energizing, but the nature of the work makes it stressful, too. Staff usually drop into the lives of families during a crisis and must find a way to partner with them to implement the supports and services they need. They do this work while adhering to federal, court, and agency timelines and guidelines; interfacing with other complex systems; and finding time to document the work. There are additional layers of complexity and stress for staff with lived experience and staff members of color due to the increased risk that they will experience secondary trauma. In fact, the stress and emotional toll of child welfare work contributed to a median turnover rate for frontline caseworkers of 22 percent between 2005 and 2015 (Paul et al., 2022).

The following strategies can help agency leaders, managers, and supervisors reduce the effect of stressors on staff at all levels of the agency and potentially decrease child welfare worker turnover in their jurisdictions.

Address Secondary Trauma

Child welfare staff need support to process secondary trauma and opportunities to grieve the impact of the tragic family separation, abuse, and neglect they encounter in their work. By instituting policies and practices around self-care, agencies can do the following:

  • Acknowledge that secondary trauma and moral injury (psychological, spiritual, and social harm caused by one’s own or another’s actions) are inherent components of this work, and many staff begin working in child welfare soon after graduation and may not fully grasp or be able to recognize the signs of secondary trauma. The ability to process difficult emotions is essential both before hire and on a regular basis afterward.
  • Assist staff with developing the skills needed to address secondary trauma by creating regular opportunities for peer support. For example, learning circles or group coaching can be used to raise awareness around, prevent, and mitigate secondary trauma.
  • Elevate the expertise of those who demonstrate effective self-care techniques to coach, mentor, or lead a class. Encourage new workers to begin attending these peer support groups before carrying a caseload.
  • Initiate employee assistance programs, which may include counseling and proactive services, such as training and educational programs on topics like stress management, resilience building, and self-care. Employee assistance programs can help child welfare workers develop skills to prevent or effectively address potential challenges before they escalate.

Nurture All Partnerships

Create a culture that values strong relationships with families and system partners. Investing time to support relationships can help mitigate secondary trauma and lessen staff turnover (Paul, 2020). While building partnerships with system partners may take more time initially, that investment pays off when partners are able to offer additional education and support for families, young people, and children instead of relying on the worker to be the sole source of this support. The following strategies can support relationship building among agency staff as well as with families, communities, and other service providers:

  • Incorporate structured icebreakers in initial meetings between parents and caregivers so they can meet one another on a more personal level and set up a supportive relationship from the start.
  • Integrate parent-to-parent peer support partnerships where veteran parents can share their experience and skills to help parents entering the child welfare system navigate services and better understand agency expectations, as well as provide encouragement that reunification is possible.
  • Support strong interprofessional collaboration with court partners to promote information sharing and common goals to reduce barriers and conflicts and lessen the stress of everyday work (Gibbs et al., in press).
  • Ensure regular communication with community partners and service providers so that new workers are aware of the community resources available to parents, young people, and caregivers.
  • Include the entire family (i.e., young people, parents, and extended family) in all case planning and decision-making that supports families in creating safety in the home and preventing separation.
  • Build professional relationships with lived experience experts and those from diverse backgrounds, both on staff and those working with the agency, so they may offer perspective and support to families and young people currently in child welfare, as well as staff members.

Reframe Family Engagement

“Reframing family engagement” means prioritizing the decisions made by families and partnering with them as equals in all interactions. Families are the experts in determining what is best for themselves and their children. This way of thinking about family engagement can help minimize potentially negative interactions with families. The following strategies can help staff reframe their engagement with young people and families to work with them in more positive ways:

  • Encourage staff to explore their own biases or beliefs, such as “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and ensure those biases are checked when working with families and young people.
  • Use a collaborative, coaching approach with staff to model the value of cocreating plans for growth, and support staff working alongside families to codevelop case plans rather than developing case plans for them.
  • Implement a strengths-based approach. Ask: What has worked well in the past when the family navigated a crisis? What support is available to the family? What does the family say they need to weather this crisis?
  • Coach staff to work with parents, children, and young people through the lens of traumatic events and adverse childhood experiences. Help staff develop the skillset needed to look beyond an individual's behaviors and use a lens of curiosity to uncover the underlying fears or trauma leading to these actions.
  • Ask all partners (e.g., parents, caregivers, extended family members, judicial partners, community partners, and others) to continually consider, “What can we do to ease the trauma on the child?”

Recognizing the secondary trauma and moral injury caused by child welfare work, cultivating partnerships, and developing a strengths-based mindset toward parents can help child welfare staff develop healthy self-care techniques and promote inclusive engagement practices with families, young people, communities, and other service providers.

This year’s Child Welfare Virtual Expo, “Recruit, Retain, and Support: Strategies for Strengthening the Child Welfare Workforce,” will take place on September 21. For more information, visit


The following resources can help agencies support a healthy workforce and reduce worker stress:


Gibbs, D. J., Phillips, J. D., & Villagrana, K. M. (in press). Stress, satisfaction, and turnover among child welfare workers: Examining associations with quality of interprofessional collaboration. Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research.

Paul, M. (2020). Umbrella summary: Thriving. Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development.

Paul, M., Harrison, C., Litt, J., & Graef, M. (2022). Worker turnover is a persistent child welfare challenge - So is measuring it. Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development.