Ohio News Connection

April 17, 2023Available files: mp3 wav jpg

Mounting Child Welfare Caseworker Shortages Put More Ohio Kids at Risk

Nadia Ramlagan

All of Ohio's 88 counties are struggling to find and retain child-welfare caseworkers.

Between 2016 and 2017, around 1 in 4 caseworkers in Ohio left their positions, and the pandemic has worsened those numbers.

Sarah Fortner, deputy director of Fairfield County Protective Services, said the job requires long hours, and often takes a physical and mental toll assisting families dealing with abuse, trauma, substance use and other complex issues. She explained while many people think caseworkers remove kids from their home and place them in foster care, their primary role is building connections with families and troubleshooting what supports and services they need in order to thrive.

She acknowledged the approach has become increasingly challenging amid ongoing worker shortages.

"They have a staff of 200, and they currently have 50, 60-plus vacancies," Fortner pointed out. "It is very concerning, because when you're thinking of that many vacancies in an agency, that is that many less workers who are responding to the community."

Research shows while many caseworkers want to stay in their jobs because of feelings of personal accomplishment, and positive co-worker support and client relationships, low salaries and high workloads are driving them out.

Stacy Cox, director of Champaign County's Department of Job and Family Services, said agencies have to reprioritize their work.

"Safety cannot be put at a lower level of priority, so safety becomes our highest priority," Cox emphasized. "Through that, we're just going from crisis to crisis, to crisis."

Fortner stressed she wants policymakers to consider doubling or tripling workforces throughout the state.

"This would allow for increased caseworkers, which would then help with lower caseload, which then means that's more manageable for them," Fortner outlined. "That leads to healthier work-life balance. Because this is not a job where you leave at five every day, you work long hours on very difficult cases."

According to the Casey Family Programs, for the past fifteen years, child welfare turnover rates have been estimated at 20% to 40%.