Young therapist woman speaking and treating child

How child welfare agencies can help reduce secondary trauma—and increase retention

Child welfare workers are leaving the profession, compounding the danger to at-risk families. Government agencies can do more to help.

In brief

  • In the pandemic, child welfare workers have experienced high levels of secondary trauma.
  • Trauma, isolation and plentiful higher paying jobs have led many to leave the profession.
  • Government agencies need to do more to retain them.

“The pandemic has worn employees out.” That was a sentiment echoed around the room when I met recently with people from government health and human services agencies around the country. While that may seem a common refrain — think pieces abound about the “Great Resignation” — the question at the top of their minds was what to do about child welfare workers quitting in droves, leaving our most vulnerable populations even more vulnerable.

Reported child welfare cases have been more severe

While the pandemic has often decreased caseloads, the families and children that child welfare workers have been seeing are among the most traumatized. This is because it’s often mandated reporters such as teachers, doctors and hospitals that are required to report any injury or suspicion of neglect to state agencies for investigation. In normal times, after investigation, a fair proportion of these cases are resolved without any action needing to be taken (e.g., injury due to an accident). But during lockdown when children were not leaving their homes, these types of routine and innocuous reports were not occurring as regularly.

That leaves reports of just the most intense and traumatized cases. Spending the majority of their time trying to help children and families in the worst situations takes a large mental and emotional toll on child welfare workers. Many have found themselves experiencing secondary trauma, which mirrors the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and can be characterized by compassion fatigue, anxiety, isolation, sleep disturbance and a host of other physical and emotional ailments that may persist long after the situations themselves have resolved. Add that to the pandemic stress and isolation that we all have been feeling, their own individual and family situations, and a plethora of available jobs in other industries that pay as well or better, and it’s easy to understand why child welfare workers are leaving the field (and why others are reluctant to enter it).

More needs to be done to help safeguard America’s families, particularly in tackling employee wellness.

Efforts to reduce vicarious trauma and turnover can be expanded

With the increase in child welfare agency turnover rates, some of our most vulnerable populations are left without sufficient help or oversight--and state agencies are well aware. “We need to make sure that we understand that our employees in this field are suffering from secondary trauma and stress,” was met with full-throated agreement in that meeting.

And as they described to me, many agencies have worked to put new retention and recruiting measures in place for the community support systems, even under the unique constraints of the civil service code. Some examples are:

  • Referral bonuses for current staff
  • Out of state recruitment bonuses
  • Better online pathways and degrees
  • Teaching labs for students who are interested in early childhood education (giving them credit while getting on-the-job experience
  • Tuition reimbursement
  • Quarterly stipends for educational credits

Anecdotally, these tactics seem to be working to attract and retain some child welfare workers. But more needs to be done to help safeguard America’s families, particularly in tackling employee wellness. While most states have robust employee assistance programs, employees may not take full advantage of them, out of worry about privacy issues, difficulty in accessing services or simply forgetting they exist. And some of these programs may not offer the help that employees truly need.

A challenge that state agencies face here is similar to one they face in many other areas — a lack of meaningful data and analysis to help them understand the employee experience, exactly what is driving employees to leave, and their concerns and their struggles. Money and benefits, while important, are clearly far from the whole story here.

As former Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Human Services, I understand the challenges state agencies face to gather and synthesize the right data to put new effective employee-focused programs into place. But I think we all agree that more must be done to relieve the stress on our child welfare workers.

Agencies can use a 3-step data-backed strategy to retain child welfare workers

Research suggests that most employers — not just government agencies — are still guessing about what employees want and need, rather than truly working to understand the issues. Assuming we understand what employees need will not solve the retention issue — agencies need to approach this methodically and put together an evidence-based strategy for retaining and recruiting vital workers, one that is tailored to their specific geographic area, pressures and community needs.

Agencies can start creating a plan with a three-step approach.

1.  Understand the current state

Investigate the employee needs base through robust data gathering techniques and use sophisticated analysis to begin to understand what is driving them to leave and will help them to stay. Armed with that information, you can begin to make a plan.

2. Define the future state

Use that data to determine what the future can and should look like for child welfare workers, while being realistic about what agencies can achieve, given budget and civil code constraints.

3. Building long-term strategy and sustainability

Take current data and future state ideals and harmonize them into a long-term sustainable plan for recruiting, retaining and addressing the important financial, emotional and support needs of child welfare workers.


By truly understanding how vicarious trauma affects child welfare workers, government agencies can begin to help those who work in this critical community support system stay professionally and emotionally engaged to help those who are the most vulnerable in our society.

Reach out to Danielle Barnes, our government strategist and human services consultant, to begin building a better plan to protect and retain your agency workers.

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