Abstract: Timing, Destinations, and Determinants of Early Turnover Among Frontline Child Welfare Workers (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Timing, Destinations, and Determinants of Early Turnover Among Frontline Child Welfare Workers

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Valley of the Sun E, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Melissa Radey, PhD, Professor, Florida State University
Dina Wilke, PhD, Professor, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL

The high-stakes nature of child welfare work together with hostile clients; high caseloads; and extensive, time-sensitive documentation requirements contribute to high levels of turnover. Little research examines the magnitude, timing, destinations, and determinants of early departures. Using employment-based social capital perspective, this study describes the extent and timing of workers’ exits from child welfare within the first 36 months following hire; the sectors of the jobs workers take immediately following a child welfare exit; and organizational support characteristics associated with job destinations.


This study used the Florida Study of Professionals for Safe Families dataset, a longitudinal cohort study of child welfare workers in Florida (N=1,500). At each wave, workers indicated if they left their baseline agencies, and when applicable, indicated their new field of employment. We distinguish among workers who leave their beginning child welfare roles for other positions within child welfare, positions in other health and human services (HHS) fields, positions outside of any HHS field, or without a plan for employment (i.e., unemployed). Analyses examined predictors of departure from child welfare and job destination. Design-based F-tests tested for statistically significant bivariate associations. Multinomial logistic regression was used to examine how organizational characteristics contributed to departure and subsequent job destinations. Models included demographic characteristics, organizational characteristics from the Psychological Climate Questionnaire, co-worker support from Caplan’s index, receipt of mentoring, and level of satisfaction with pay and benefits.


By three years, almost 60% of workers had left child welfare. Of those staying in child welfare positions, 50% had switched agencies at least once. The highest levels of turnover were within 12 months of hire. One exit path did not dominate. Workers leaving child welfare were relatively equally divided between moving to a different HHS field, another employment sector, or leaving without another job in place. Organizational supports (innovation, justice, support) decreased odds of exiting to other HHS fields relative to staying in child welfare, yet positive supervisory climates contributed to departure among those exiting to HHS. Gender, marital status, parental status, a higher-level degree, and reliance on income from the child welfare job did not predict departure. In addition, no organizational characteristic was consistently significant in predicting exit destinations.

Discussion & Implications

Findings indicate high levels of turnover with most workers exiting child welfare within the first 2 years. The majority of exiting workers left without a plan or entered other closely related HHS fields, suggesting they may have stayed in child welfare under different conditions. Much turnover may be preventable creating opportunities for organizational retention strategies. Yet, the few statistically significant individual and organizational social capital characteristics indicate that workers weigh many factors when considering departure. Early supports for workers could have maximum impact for retention efforts. In addition, organizations can proactively guide career development and help workers understand promotional opportunities and other career pathways in child welfare as higher satisfaction with promotion opportunities provided some protection from departing to the HHS sector. Agencies could benefit from considering multiple types of turnover to inform retention strategies.