Development and Testing of a Structural Model of Child Welfare Casework Effort
This paper examines two research questions concerning the organizational context of child welfare casework (Smith & Donovan, 2003): (1) How much time do child welfare caseworkers expend per case?; and (2) What factors related to client need, workers’ roles, and the organizational context of frontline casework are associated with caseworkers’ work effort over time? Given that caseworkers are the primary point of intervention in human service agencies (Hasenfeld, 2010), the paucity of research on these questions stands in contrast with their importance to organizational/management researchers. While studies have determined that frontline casework efforts can influence child welfare service delivery and client outcomes (Bunger, Chuang, & McBeath, 2012; McBeath & Meezan, 2010), no study has identified the client and organizational factors shaping the production of child welfare work.
Data were drawn from 934 child welfare-involved families and their caseworkers within 84 public child welfare agencies participating in the first cohort of the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW I). NSCAW I is nationally representative of all families investigated for maltreatment by Child Protective Services between November 1999 and January 2001 and living in states not requiring agency first contact of sample members. The current sample was restricted to cases with full information from baseline data collection to 36 months after initial interviews were completed (from initial investigation to 40-42 months post-investigation, coinciding with three waves of data collection). Latent growth curve modeling with binomial distributions was used to examine the relationship between the total hours caseworkers devoted per family per wave and factors pertaining to the child (e.g., age, race/ethnicity, maltreatment type, evidence of special needs), caregiver (e.g., indicated substance abuse, mental health needs), caseworker (e.g., race/ethnicity, experience, primary job role), and the perceived organizational context (e.g., role overload, discretion, supervisory support).
On average, caseworkers expended 27 hours per month per family at Wave 1; 22 hours/month per family at Wave 2; and 19 hours/month per family at Wave 3. Multivariate analyses determined that caseworkers’ work effort was positively associated with longer-tenured caseworkers, perceived supervisory support, and formal responsibilities for service provision (as opposed to caseworkers whose primary role concerned CPS or child placement). Child and caregiver demographic characteristics and their needs were generally unassociated with casework effort.
In reporting upon the first longitudinal examination of the production of child welfare casework, this paper finds support for an organizational-structural model in which frontline work effort is principally a function of caseworkers’ formal characteristics and informal perceptions of organizational context. In contrast, work effort is largely unexplained by differences in child or caregiver characteristics or needs. Albeit associational in nature, the finding that caseworkers’ characteristics and understanding of the frontline task and technical environment predominate over client-related factors suggests the need for greater empirical attention to identifying the conditions under which frontline caseworkers attend carefully to client needs; as well as to the design and testing of organizational/managerial interventions that help frontline caseworkers tailor service efforts to suit client, caseworker, and organizational conditions.