How to Cultivate Child-Welfare Workers

Naomi Schaefer Riley

Summer 2020

Front-line work in child protective services (CPS) is not a profession that attracts many high-quality applicants. Indeed, far too often it attracts people who do not have any other options, who fail to understand what the job is about, and who lack the skills to carry out their responsibilities successfully. Agencies then compound the problem by offering investigators little training, little reason — financial or otherwise — to remain in the profession, and no career ladder for those who show promise.

The problems plaguing the profession are evident in the turnover rates for investigators, which are extraordinary: A report from Casey Family Programs estimates that the average turnover rate at child-welfare agencies in the United States is approximately 30%, with individual agency rates reaching up to 65%. As Sarah Font of Pennsylvania State University notes, these turnovers cost agencies "both financially, through recruitment and training costs, and qualitatively, through having an inexperienced workforce, staff shortages and discontinuity in the relationship between caseworkers and families."

And frankly, in some situations, an employee leaving may be the best-case scenario. "For those workers who remain on the job," Font writes, "burnout manifests in the workplace as work avoidance, apathy toward the well-being of clients, and feelings of cynicism and futility." One study she cites found that, relative to their peers, "workers with high levels of burnout are more likely and quicker to conclude that children in hypothetical cases are at no risk of harm."

Abused and neglected children are among the most vulnerable in our society. And all too often, they lack any responsible adults to advocate for them. Regardless of whether you believe too many or too few children are being taken away from their parents, CPS investigators have an important job. These people will touch the lives of millions of families, especially families in crisis.

In these respects, the recruitment and training of CPS investigators poses a challenge similar to the recruitment and training of police officers, firefighters, and other front-line responders. The analogy grates on many people in the field, but it also gestures toward far more effective practices that could dramatically improve the capacity of child-welfare agencies to find better people and to train those people more effectively.


Part of the problem with recruiting CPS investigators is that the goals of the child-welfare system seem to be ever expanding. It's a particular irony that while increasing numbers of Americans think too many children are being taken from their homes due to overzealous child-welfare workers, leaders at both the state and national levels are committed to increasing the number of families the system touches. As one official from the United States Children's Bureau — a division of the Department of Health and Human Services — recently told an audience: "We need to let go of the system that was designed to rescue children and construct a system that's designed to promote health and well-being for all families."

One reason to focus on the narrower question of the people who pursue CPS careers, then, is that the mission of these workers is in some ways relatively clear. Some children are always going to be in need of rescuing. As such, the education, recruitment, and training of CPS workers — and of investigators in particular — is important to identifying and handling the most severe cases of child abuse and neglect in the system.

It is difficult to gauge the qualifications of the people who go into this field, in part because the requirements to work as a CPS investigator vary by state and locality. In some states, like Michigan, applicants are required to have a bachelor's degree in a subject related to child welfare. In other states, a college degree is not required. Texas, for example, allows applicants to present evidence that they have completed 60 credit hours of college work and have gained two years of relevant work experience, which can include "paid or volunteer work within social service agencies or communities providing services to families or other at-risk populations."

When agencies are given a choice, they exhibit a strong preference for hiring applicants who have a social-work background. But this preference is a problem, given the state of social-work education programs in America today. In a paper for the journal Research on Social Work Practice, David Stoesz of the University of Illinois at Springfield pulls no punches. "For decades," he writes, "the expectations of social work students as well as their abilities have been suspect." In terms of undergraduate programs, Stoesz cites the work of Richard Arum and Josipia Roksa, which indicates that undergraduates who major in education or social work perform worse on the Collegiate Learning Assessment than undergraduates in almost every other field of study. As for Masters of Social Work (MSW) candidates, their GRE scores "ranked second to last" among the scores of all graduate disciplines in combined verbal and math scores, behind even those of students pursuing degrees in physical education. And on quantitative scores alone, the MSW candidates ranked dead last. He adds that the accrediting authority for schools of social work "has failed to even require that a research thesis be an option for [MSW] students," something that sets social-work programs apart from, say, nursing and public-health programs.

Of course, these numbers describe students enrolled in social-work programs; they do not represent all CPS investigators or even all people who go into child-welfare professions more broadly. But since CPS agencies tend to prefer to hire applicants with social-work backgrounds, it is likely that this assessment is representative of many, if not most, of those who go into the child-welfare field. More troublingly, because working for a public child-welfare agency is considered one of the less-desirable paths for people who have undergraduate or graduate degrees in social work, focusing on MSW students may even paint an overly optimistic picture of the average CPS investigator's competence.

Perhaps it is not immediately obvious why MSW candidates should have to do any kind of research thesis, or why GRE scores — particularly those in math — should matter for people pursuing careers relating to child welfare. But according to Richard Gelles, the former dean of social work at the University of Pennsylvania, students going into the field need to understand math because they need to make sense of research and data in order to determine the actual likelihood that a child is in danger. This, in turn, requires a solid grasp of statistics.

If social-work undergraduates and MSW candidates are not bringing such skills to their programs at the outset, they may not be learning them while at school, either. The Columbia School of Social Work — ranked third in U.S. News & World Report's 2019 "Best Schools for Social Work" — requires students to take a course that extends their "understanding of distributive justice, human and civil rights and the dynamics of oppression." Another foundational course emphasizes "issues of power, privilege, oppression, identity, and social justice" and an elective teaches students "to challenge bias, prejudice and forms of discrimination that operate in the lives of social workers and [their] clients." Hunter College's social-work program, ranked 25th by U.S. News, offers a series of foundational courses with a "specific focus of attention on issues of diversity (culture, class, ethnicity, race, age, sexual orientation, spirituality, ability, and gender)" and one that explores "poverty in the context of oppression, diversity and social justice."

As Stoesz notes, this "[i]nfatuation with postmodern philosophy" not only sidesteps the development of real skills necessary to succeed in social work, it "compromises social work's epistemology." He goes on to explain that postmodernism "repudiate[s] empiricism as an artifact of patriarchal, Western science" and instead "embrace[s] European, mostly French, philosophers who contended that reality should be depicted by narratives constructed by diverse 'voices,' none of which [are] more privileged than others."

Gelles says it is inevitable that social-work schools would want to focus on these issues. At the outset of his courses, he warns his students, "You will face a situation where your clients are disproportionately from minority families, and they view you as a child snatcher who is racist by definition. That will put a lot of burden on you." But classes on understanding identity and oppression are of limited use in preparing to work through these and other challenges CPS investigators face. What's more, they undermine respect for the role of CPS investigators in the child-welfare system. Jill Duerr Berrick, a professor of social work at the University of California, Berkeley, says the students "[she] train[s] and teach[es] have mixed feelings about joining this workforce. They will say, 'The only things I've read about this job are negative. I don't want to be oppressive. I don't want to take people's rights. I don't want to make bad decisions and I don't want to be castigated if I do.'"

At best, then, it seems social-work programs are teaching students modes of thinking that are largely irrelevant to CPS work. At worst, they are suggesting to CPS investigators that evidence is subjective, that all narratives should be considered equally, that a worker's own identity is the biggest factor in determining whether a child is in a dangerous situation, and that doing their job is to be "the oppressor."

But it's not just political correctness or postmodern philosophy that create barriers to hiring the right people. Many child-welfare agencies do not do their own hiring; typically a separate human-resources department administers tests and interviews for the positions available. John Mattingly, former commissioner of the Administration for Children's Services (ACS) in New York City, says that this approach to hiring is a holdover from Tammany Hall reforms designed to prevent the city commissioner from giving jobs to his relatives. But such policies are common elsewhere, too. The result is a disconnect between the candidates an agency wants and the ones human resources sends over.

Recent efforts to improve the CPS workforce will not sound revolutionary to observers in just about any other profession. The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently collaborated with two counties — one in Colorado and one in Ohio — to develop a "stronger child welfare workforce." Its report suggests agencies should "partner with HR," be "strategic and flexible in their approach to hiring and retaining the right people," use "competency models that identify key skills for certain job classifications," employ data to understand vacancy rates and the size of worker caseloads, and "build a positive work environment" more generally.

These suggestions would surely improve CPS hiring (and retention), but in talking to various agency leaders and researchers, it seems that many of the problems with the system could be avoided if agencies simply focused on assessing candidates' competencies before choosing to hire them. The simple fact is that child-welfare agencies are failing to ask people with an interest in or aptitude for investigations to think about a career in child welfare, which leads to more problems down the line.

As Tracey Feild of the Casey Foundation points out, "You've got to find people who have the interest [in] do[ing] the investigation," people "who are not freaked out by going into uncomfortable situations, who have some tenaciousness about figuring out what [is] going on." Quoting a consultant that the foundation hired to help with the Colorado and Ohio initiatives, she adds, "You may be able to teach a turkey to climb a tree, but it's a lot easier to hire a squirrel."

Part of the problem, however, is that agencies cannot choose among candidates for an open position unless they have a surplus of candidates applying. Yet for too many agencies, the reality is much the opposite. Gregory McKay, the former director of the Arizona Department of Child Safety (DCS), says there was such a shortage of workers and so few applicants for vacancies that the agency adopted "a man-down philosophy." "You have thousands and thousands and thousands of cases," he notes, "and people quit or bow out." To fill the gap, the agency simply "push[es] another person in" with little to no training "to pick up right where [their predecessor] left off."

Because there is such a shortage of applicants, agencies often fail to distinguish between people who seek careers in child welfare because they are interested in counseling families and those who see their role as investigating whether a child has been abused or neglected. In fact, many agencies move people from position to position in order to avoid burnout. The thinking is that secondary trauma from investigating crimes against children can be mitigated by some time spent on more positive work, such as adoption counseling. But this kind of thinking assumes that everyone is a squirrel, so to speak. And given the applicant shortage, that is certainly not the case.


The real work of CPS begins with investigation. John Mattingly described the typical experience of a CPS investigator during an event at the American Enterprise Institute last year:

You're a 24-year-old woman. You have a degree in sociology with a history minor. You grew up in a suburban working-class or middle-class family and went to a school system, which was very much segregated one way or the other....And you find yourself within two, three months on the job walking into a public housing apartment building, walking past the gangbangers who hang out in front, taking what you have to take from them as you walk by.

You don't use the elevator if you're smart because the elevators are either broken or they're not safe at all. So you have to hoof it up the steps. You walk into a situation in a family that is only Spanish speaking....

The report you got was that this mother was making her living by selling drugs out of that apartment and that the children periodically get bumped around by the drug users who are coming in. That's all you know. You don't know who made that report. You're not in a position [to learn much] because you have to get out there within 24 hours....

When you come in, you are able to the mother because she does speak English, not terribly well but somewhat. She then tells [the children's grandparents], who just got into New York within the past 30 days, who you are. They snatch up their grandchildren and run out the front door....

So you have to find a way to, first of all, make an initial assessment of this young woman; secondly, to get her to get the children back so you can speak with them; and thirdly, assess what you think [was] going on that night in that apartment.

Assessing the conditions in the home, asking difficult questions of the adults and children present, gaining familiarity with any other reports of abuse or neglect made against the family, understanding risk factors like the presence of non-relative males in the home — these are all necessary, time-sensitive steps an investigator needs to take to complete an assessment. Shockingly, however, many CPS investigators do not know how, or simply have not been adequately trained, to take such steps, even though conducting investigations is one of their core duties.

Another problem — one that Mattingly's example makes abundantly clear — is that CPS investigators routinely put themselves in harm's way to do their jobs but are not given the tools or training to protect themselves. In the fall of 2018, the New York Post reported that a 55-year-old translator for the ACS in New York City was stabbed in the back by a grandfather after she and another worker interviewed him about the care of his grandchildren. The translator had to undergo surgery after the attack. Another article from the Chicago Tribune found that between 2013 and 2017, at least a dozen Department of Child and Family Services workers in Illinois were seriously threatened or attacked while conducting an investigation.

This threat to worker safety, coupled with the investigative nature of the job, does not immediately call to mind someone involved in child-welfare work. Indeed, according to Feild (again citing the consultant), the job description of a CPS investigator "correlates most appropriately to a CIA operative...because people may be deliberately lying to you, and you've got to figure that out."

Drawing on this observation, Cassie Statuto Bevan, who served on the U.S. Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, points out the disparities between the training required of a CPS investigator and that of another vocation that specializes in investigation: a police officer. According to Bevan, police academies require aspiring officers to complete at least 60 credit hours in order to graduate, which takes about six months. After graduating, recruits must receive another three to four months of on-the-job training before they can engage in any work as full-fledged officers.

In contrast to police academies, training at child-welfare agencies is typically closer to six weeks than to six months. In some state and county agencies, there is such a shortage of staff that investigators don't receive any significant field training before they are sent out to do their jobs. Bevan notes that the impact of this lack of training can be observed in Federal Child and Family Services Reviews. The reviews, which are conducted by the U.S. Children's Bureau to measure child-welfare outcomes among the states, show dismal results on various measures. The fiscal years 2015–2017 preliminary review, for instance, found that only in "68% of the applicable cases" was "face-to-face contact...made in accordance with state time frames." And "[i]n 23% of the 1,247 applicable cases, safety-related services were not provided," meaning "children were left in homes with unaddressed safety concerns."


An article posted on the website Child Welfare Monitor suggests a promising solution:

CPS Investigation should be a specialty in Masters in Social Work Programs. Students would learn advanced interviewing skills and how to assess the truthfulness of children and adults rather than, for example, believing children when they recant allegations with their parents in the room. Alternatively, CPS Investigations could be folded into the growing field of Forensic Social Work. In any case, a Masters-level specialization could be required in order to be a CPS worker, also adding a needed level of prestige to an important, difficult and hard-to-fill job.

But experts in child welfare seem surprised — if not horrified — when I ask about adopting a model for CPS that is closer to that of police work. When I asked Professor Berrick whether it would help to think about CPS work as more like the job of a law-enforcement officer, she responded, "I would find it startling to have a classroom full of students who have a BA in criminology." While she acknowledged her reaction might be a "gross generalization," she worried that those training for law enforcement would be seeking "adrenaline rushes," which "would be counterproductive" because "we're trying to dial it down, to get past [a given] emergency" as opposed to escalating the situation.

Some in the field acknowledge that CPS work might improve if agencies looked to law enforcement as a model of professionalization. Allison Blake, formerly the Department of Children and Families commissioner in New Jersey, believes that the state's Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) has not faced the turnover problems that other states have because New Jersey has a unionized workforce. She notes that "caseworkers were making a decent salary and had a decent benefits package and a lot of vacation [time]" even before a 1999 lawsuit questioning the agency's practices was filed, and although the unions "can be a thorn in your side," they establish a steady pipeline of workers into the agency. And yet the DCPP (formerly known as the Division of Youth and Family Services) was the subject of a federal class-action suit over its child-welfare practices and has operated under a series of consent decrees in the two decades since. The fact that New Jersey's outcomes were poor enough to warrant legal action suggests that the answer is not all about professionalization.

It is interesting that after a quarter century of police forces training recruits to practice "community policing" — to work with families and become trusted figures in neighborhoods rather than simply breaking down doors and arresting people — the academics and policymakers in the child-welfare field still want to steer clear of a law-enforcement model. Part of the reason is that many child-welfare experts and leaders do not think of parents who abuse or severely neglect children as criminals. But perhaps they should. If a woman who has been beaten by her husband went to the police, would these same experts be comfortable if the officers started talking about strategies for reuniting the couple?

The recent focus on preventive measures — 2018's Family First Prevention Services Act, for instance, offered states more money for programs that would keep families together — has reinforced the idea that child welfare should be a kind of early-intervention program rather than one that comes into play after abuse or neglect has been reported. Perhaps that should be the case. But usually by the time CPS gets involved, a child needs to be rescued, and an adult needs to be held responsible.

Improving children's welfare is obviously the paramount concern, but aside from that, there are several other reasons why CPS agencies should look to law enforcement as a model. The first is workers' personal safety. CPS investigators are charged with knocking on doors of potentially violent adults and asking intrusive questions about their families. Even if the mothers (who are often the ones being interviewed) do not become violent, their husbands, boyfriends, or other male family members sometimes do.

Some agencies are taking note of the risks inherent in CPS work and acting on them. For instance, some investigators are given rudimentary training (often by retired police officers) in how to handle dangerous situations. Some agencies ensure that investigators go out to risky situations in pairs. Blake says that although her department did not have an official policy on weapons, she allowed her workers to carry mace.

CPS might consider taking other cues from law enforcement as well. It is not uncommon to hear complaints about the lack of a career ladder in child-welfare agencies. Some of these complaints are related to compensation, but in too many agencies, as soon as workers have a couple of years working with families and children under their belt, they are placed behind a desk to supervise others. Instead of putting its most experienced workers in supervisory positions, agencies need to have a position equivalent to that of a senior investigator or detective in law enforcement — veterans who continue to interview and work cases rather than simply supervising others.

Some agencies are taking the idea that law enforcement has something to teach CPS more seriously. Susan Morely came to New York City's ACS after 21 years of serving in the New York Police Department (NYPD), which included time in the Special Victims Division. She says that soon after she arrived, she saw that CPS investigators were "criticized for not doing things they didn't have the tools to do, for not knowing the criminal background of the people they were investigating or their domestic violence history." It became clear to her that these workers needed the same kind of access to information that law enforcement had. They also needed to improve their investigative practices.

Thanks to a new partnership between the ACS and the NYPD, there are now 152 retired detectives helping CPS investigators on their most complex cases. CPS investigators are taking training courses through the NYPD, and police officers are being trained in some CPS work as well — in dealing with trauma, for instance.

Morely observes that "bringing law enforcement to help CPS wasn't the most popular idea....If you were in a squad car and we told you CPS was going to help you, you'd be rolling your eyes." Now, based on questionnaires distributed to both groups, she says that police have more respect for CPS investigators and the complexity of their job. Her colleague David Nish, who handles workforce development for the ACS, says that CPS investigators are also "gaining respect for police and the intensive work they do."

In 2018, the ACS announced that it will open New York City's first-ever "simulated sites, where CPS will train in mock apartments, a mock courtroom, a mock detention center and interview rooms using actors and retired NYC family court judges." Commissioner David Hansell notes:

Our Child Protective Specialists are the first responders for New York City's children when they may be in danger, and they need the same state-of-the-art training experiences that other first responders have access to. Our new simulation centers will give future child welfare workers a realistic sense of what it's like to conduct home visits during investigations, interview parents and children, and testify in court. Robust and realistic training is critical for ensuring that children across New York City are safe, which is why we've expanded training over the last year and why we're building these new sites.

Arizona has taken a similar approach. Though Gregory McKay warns that police officers are not always going to do a better job of assessing danger than a CPS worker or vice versa, he has expanded what was a small partnership between Arizona law enforcement and the DCS to one in which 120 former detectives are working with CPS. It has not been easy to find the right people for this position, however. Among other things, McKay notes that former police officers dislike the fact that they don't have the kind of authority they did as officers, as they cannot carry a gun and they do not have the power to arrest anyone. But they can use the investigative skills they gained during their time in law enforcement to improve children's safety.


To understand how foreign the idea of being a first responder may seem to many CPS workers, it is worth looking at what happened at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, when a significant portion of CPS work came to a halt. There were reports that investigations — even of very serious charges like sexual abuse — were being postponed. Routine checks of children in foster homes were conducted on front steps rather than indoors. In Ohio, 60% fewer kids were removed from their homes in April 2020 than were removed during the same month in 2019.

CPS investigators may not think of themselves as the kind of people who are running toward the fire while everyone else is running away, but child abuse and neglect are never put on hold — not even during a global pandemic. To ensure the health and safety of our children, agencies need to hire CPS investigators who are willing to put their own safety at risk.

Though the partnerships in Arizona and New York are promising, they still fail to address directly the issues plaguing the CPS workforce itself. McKay has tried to do so by forming partnerships with university programs in fields besides social work, including criminology. He tells me, "If you're recruiting people from social work programs, their ideology is one of rehabilitation, redemption, and mending people. You throw them into investigations, and you have a fundamental clash of ideals." What's more, university social-work programs have a steady stream of federal dollars coming in to train people in child welfare, and they don't always want to share that wealth with others.

Recruiting a different kind of CPS investigator, therefore, may require bypassing the university system and appealing directly to the public. Like their New York counterparts, Arizona officials have also started talking about child protection as a category of first responder. With a video released in 2018, the state's DCS began explaining to the public exactly who these employees are and what they do. Some of the people in the video are actually former foster youth themselves. The video gives the public as well as potential CPS investigators a good idea of what the job entails. It also assigns investigators the title "secret superhero," suggesting that the department is trying to build more respect for their work.

According to McKay, the effort seems to be paying off. Caseloads in Arizona are down to a manageable level, from 160 cases per investigator to somewhere between 12 and 15. More than a hundred new positions have been added. Wait times for the hotline are less than a minute. Turnover rates have fallen as well.

But perhaps the most interesting sign that the agency is attracting more qualified people — and holding onto them — is the number of people wearing the department's new swag. No longer are investigators embarrassed to tell their friends and family that they work for the DCS; instead, they don hats and t-shirts proclaiming it. Just like police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians, Arizona's DCS investigators have started taking pride in their jobs. This doesn't just mean that increasing numbers of qualified people will go into CPS work, but also that members of the public will be more willing to call CPS if they are worried about cases of child abuse or neglect.

The idea of CPS investigators as a form of first responder may not sit well with those who run and teach social-work programs, who want child welfare to stop focusing on rescuing children. But for those who want to keep more children safe, the idea holds promise.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.


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