Caseworker turnover is one of the most persistent problems facing the child welfare system. Turnover represents an astronomical financial cost to agencies, leads to delays in permanency for children in foster care, and causes children and families to distrust the system. Despite an abundance of research on turnover and the implementation of organizational interventions to reduce it, most efforts have been ineffective or unsustainable. Research to date has mainly focused on examining correlational associations between individual and organizational variables and turnover; however, these studies have not identified the system-level mechanisms causing persistent high turnover rates. This study used group model building (GMB), a participatory method for building system dynamics models, to explore the system-level mechanisms causing high turnover.
Data came from semi-structured interviews and GMB workshops with caseworkers, supervisors, and the CEO in a consortium of three private agencies providing foster care services. Interviews (n=9) focused on causes and consequences of turnover. Interview data were analyzed using open and axial coding to identify key variables and causal links between variables, which then formed a seed structure, a small causal loop diagram (CLD, or systems map), to serve as a starting point in the GMB workshops. Separate GMB sessions were conducted with caseworkers (n=16) and supervisors (n=8) using the causal mapping with seed structure script. Following the workshops, the two CLDs were integrated and examined to identify the feedback processes causing changes in turnover rates.
Results showed a balancing (goal-seeking) feedback process where supervisors focused either on hiring or retention to meet staffing goals. A powerful reinforcing feedback process (vicious or virtuous cycle) determined which route was taken. Turnover was caused by caseworker frustration, which was influenced by the level of camaraderie and experience within a unit. Caseworkers and supervisors reported that promoting camaraderie and experience was part of the supervisor’s role and that both reduce frustration. Yet, high turnover rates forced to supervisors to focus their attention on hiring, leaving little time to promote camaraderie or help caseworkers increase job skills and self-efficacy, which in turn led to further turnover. Because camaraderie requires time to build, a revolving door of caseworkers reinforced this vicious cycle. Conversely, when turnover rates were low, supervisors had more time to promote camaraderie, job skills, and self-efficacy. As these qualities grew, caseworkers were more likely to remain employed and retention was reinforced. Thus, high turnover rates placed agencies in a turnover cycle that was difficult to break out of.
Results from this study were consistent with past research in that supervision and inexperience are associated with turnover. This study adds to current knowledge by identifying a mechanism behind these relationships. Results suggest that agencies may consider restructuring their workforces so that hiring and on-boarding tasks are shifted away from supervisors to free up time for retention activities. Furthermore, supervisors should emphasize low-cost and time-effective strategies for building camaraderie, job skills, and self-efficacy among caseworkers.