More than 4 million referrals were received by child protective services agencies in 2019; approximately 656,000 children in the United States were victims of child maltreatment in the same year (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021). COVID-19 has required alterations in the way child welfare staff conduct agency business. Research suggests stressors experienced during the pandemic have negatively impacted child welfare professionals and their levels of burnout (Whitt-Woosley et al., 2022). To understand the challenges experienced by staff and determine which changes have been beneficial, it is important to gain the perspectives of those working in children services/child protective services (CPS) agencies. This research explores the lessons learned from operating in a pandemic and how changes in practice have impacted child welfare staff.
A mixed-methods research study was conducted using an electronic survey for staff at CPS agencies across Ohio. The survey asked about participant’s job satisfaction, challenges, and how agency practices have shifted in both positive and challenging ways for staff. A survey link was distributed to executive directors of all 85 Children Services agencies in Ohio. Survey responses were anonymous and included a combination of dichotomous questions, rating scales and open-ended questions.
Descriptive statistics were conducted to identify information about the sample and frequencies for responses to survey questions. A series of correlations were conducted to examine relationships between relevant variables. Responses to the open-ended questions on the survey were analyzed using the process of thematic analysis, following guidelines from Braun and Clarke (2006).
Staff (n=253) from 50 Children Services agencies across Ohio participated in the study. Most participants were in the age categories of 35-44 (30%) and 45-54 (31%). Participants held a variety of roles including Supervisor/Administration (29%), Intake/Investigation (20%), family Services/Ongoing (19%), Foster Care/Placement (8%), and Adoptions/Permanency (7%). Most held a bachelor’s degree (58%) or master’s degree (34%). Participant’s undergraduate education was primarily psychology (28%), social work (24%), or criminal justice (14%). Most participants were married (60%), White/Caucasian (87%) and female (90%).
Participants identified challenges with stress (70.9%), feeling overwhelmed (63.5%), burnout (51.2%), and motivation (40.2%). Staff members identified that agencies had made some positive changes since the pandemic began and identified shifts they would like to see continue post-pandemic. Many staff members discussed the desire for a nontraditional site and schedule. They reported wanting greater flexibility, hybrid options, and the opportunity to work remotely, as well as the need for engagement and support from coworkers and supervisors.
Conclusions and Implications
Information acquired from CPS staff during the pandemic helps us learn what is working across a range of child welfare agencies of various sizes and with variation in urban/rural context. Additionally, these findings may help agencies understand challenges of staff, and provides guidance regarding which changes may be beneficial to continue post-pandemic. Results of this study will be useful to agencies trying to assist staff in their stressful and challenging roles and consider ways to shift practices that may minimize turnover.