Abstract: Selling Our Children to the Lowest Bidder: A Qualitative Study Investigating the Experiences of Child Welfare Workers Practicing in Privatized Systems (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Selling Our Children to the Lowest Bidder: A Qualitative Study Investigating the Experiences of Child Welfare Workers Practicing in Privatized Systems

Saturday, January 19, 2019: 10:45 AM
Golden Gate 1, Lobby Level (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
D. Crystal Coles, PhD, LCSW, Assistant Professor, University of Kansas
Angie Mann-Williams, PhD, LCSW, Assistant Professor & Honors Chair, Eastern Michigan University, Yspilanti, MI
Ariana Riegel, Student, Eastern Michigan University, MI
Zachary Ellsworth, Student, Eastern Michigan University, MI

There have been many states that have transitioned their state-run systems to privatized systems that utilize private organizations for service provision.  Proponents of a privatization model argue that privatization is also cost-effective because it allows autonomy of workers within their ability to advocate for organizational and client policies for children in foster care, permits innovative service delivery techniques, higher quality of services at lower costs, and provides for increased systemic data collection for measuring efficiency of services (Casey Family Programs, 2010; Myslewicz, 2007).  Such changes have altered the structure of the foster care system, the organizational operations for those employed within the child welfare system, and the continuity of care for individuals and families receiving services from the system.  These kinds of changes, though seemingly positive, contradict emerging literature on child welfare systemic transitions and the implications on the care provided to children and families; particularly children of color who are disproportionately represented within the public child welfare system (Blackstone, Buck, & Hakim, 2004).   The primary aim of this study is to investigate the experiences of child welfare workers during the implementation and daily operation of privatized child welfare systems.


In this qualitative study, semi-structured interviews were completed using a purposive defined sampling strategy.  The sampling frame (N=25) equally represented child welfare administrators, supervisors, foster care workers, case managers and direct service workers.  Interview questions included topics related to the workers perspective regarding the impact of privatization on the child welfare system, their practice, community, children and families. Data were recorded, de-identified and transcribed.  Next, the data were coded thematically, using Atlas.ti, building relevant themes that can iteratively inform and describe child welfare workers perspectives regarding working within privatized child welfare systems.


The results of the data determined primary themes including: 1) differing perspectives of privatization within practice roles, 2) systemic operation contributing to worker burnout, 3) worker frustration regarding privatization, 4) privatization prohibiting continuity of care for the child, and 5) the impact of privatization for the system. Overall, the data revealed that each of the domains identified within the analysis was interconnected and provided a depth of knowledge regarding the implementation and operation of privatization of the child welfare system.

These results suggest that though privatization of child welfare may be viewed as a cost-saving mechanism, there are implications outside of costs that are impacting the functioning of the child welfare system.


Though privatization may be viewed as a cost-effective strategy, the impact of systemic operations is being experienced by those involved with the system: the workers and the children.  The findings from this study reveal that through reform, implementation and operational functioning, critical areas related to the well-being of children are not at the focus of privatized systems.  Such systematic changes impact the child welfare system, continue to negatively affect children and disproportionately impact foster care youth of color. Substantial systemic changes occur as a result of privatization and these changes may not be in the best interest of the child.