Workforce turnover can have negative effects in all organizations but is particularly detrimental in human service fields such as child welfare. Not only is there a financial impact associated with the hiring and training of new staff, but chronic turnover can lead to understaffing and high caseloads in child welfare resulting in negative consequences for those the system is designed to protect, families and children. With national estimates turnover in public child welfare agencies ranging from 20% to 40%, researchers and practitioners are continuing to search for solutions. 1 

In Kentucky, there is a unique program that demonstrates the power of partnership in addressing systemic issues such as turnover in child welfare. Kentucky’s Public Child Welfare Certification Program (PCWCP) is a collaboration between the state’s Department for Community Based Services (DCBS), all eight publicly funded universities, and three private universities focused on recruitment, selection, and preparation of highly prepared child welfare workers.

PCWCP selects outstanding juniors and seniors enrolled in Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) programs at the 11 participating universities. These students, chosen through a rigorous application and interview process, commit to work for DCBS for at least two years after graduation and receive tuition assistance and a stipend for educational expenses for up to their last four semesters of school. While in PCWCP, students are required to take two academic courses related to child welfare, complete specialized training, attend bi-annual retreats, and participate in a practicum experience in a local DCBS office.  

As a result of this university-state agency partnership, PCWCP graduates enter the workforce with the knowledge and skills needed for success as a Social Service Worker with DCBS. In addition to the social work foundation and practical, real-world experience, PCWCP graduates bring established connections with a support system of peers, practicum supervisors, university faculty, program administrators, and coordinators. This combination of special preparation and support results in positive outcomes for PCWCP graduates and the agency as indicated in ongoing evaluation results. Dr. Anita Barbee, University of Louisville’s Kentucky School of Social Work, consistently finds that PCWCP graduates have higher retention rates (employees stay on the job longer) than national estimates.

Erin Mayhorn, University of Kentucky’s (UK) PCWCP Coordinator/clinical faculty and 2003 PCWCP graduate (Morehead State University), offers insight into the power of the support system provided through PCWCP. “The tuition assistance and educational stipends students receive through the program are important, but it is the relationships that PCWCP students develop that provide an extra layer of support once on the job,” stated Mayhorn. Reflecting on her own experience as a new Social Service Worker with DCBS, Mayhorn said, “Having connections with other PCWCPs who were in the same situation was very important when I was a new worker and throughout my career with DCBS. These were people who understood what I was going through. We still get together to celebrate birthdays, weddings, or go to dinner.” 

According to Mayhorn, those relationships were invaluable as a worker and supervisor with DCBS, as she had connections with others in the agency who not only understood what she was facing on the job, but she had people there to offer support and an outlet for processing work-related issues. With the current opioid/substance use disorder epidemic and higher rates of turnover, the preparation and connections PCWCP provides are even more important to new DCBS staff today. “When I first started with DCBS, we had a lot of seasoned veteran workers in the office. With the current opioid/substance use disorder epidemic and other complex issues facing our families, secondary trauma and burnout are becoming more common for staff. Having a strong support system and practicing self-care were always important, but they are now critical,” stated Mayhorn. “I remind students that you have to take care of yourself before you can help others.”

Mayhorn’s sentiments about the importance of connections still hold true. According to a 2017 Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) PCWCP graduate and current employee with DCBS, Hannah Deas, “The connections made within the agency, within community partners, and with peers and colleagues that stem directly from my practicum are an integral part to the way in which I serve children and families today. I contribute a lot of the success and confidence I have as a child protection social work to my time as a PCWCP student.” 

Kentucky’s PCWCP is in its 22nd year and has graduated over 1,000 specially trained BSW students to work in DCBS. Those essential “connections” for PCWCP students and future DCBS employees that Mayhorn and Deas reference begin each fall and spring semester at the 11 participating university BSW programs. At the beginning of each semester PCWCP coordinators, faculty members, and local DCBS staff visit introductory social work classes to educate students about the program, the application, and the selection process and working in DCBS. Mayhorn views these recruiting activities as the highlight of her job as she is able to combine her social work and DCBS experience with her education experience to “help others find their calling.”

Mayhorn’s multiple roles as PCWCP graduate, DCBS frontline worker, DCBS supervisor, and now PCWCP coordinator allow her to give students first-hand accounts of the program’s impact. She shares with prospective applicants her incredible passion for the work and the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of families and children. Mayhorn also discusses the realities of the job that only those who work in child welfare can genuinely understand. “Helping people is a calling. If you have the calling, follow it. Child welfare is the hardest but most rewarding job you will ever do.” 

When asked what she really wanted prospective applicants to know about PCWCP at the end of the day, Mayhorn stated, “The connections that PCWCP students make are what I want prospective applicants to know about the program. The benefits of those connections with social work faculty, PCWCP administrators, and their future colleagues are something that not all students know about, but they make a big difference. I feel blessed to have been in PCWCP and blessed to have my DCBS co-workers.”

[1] National Child Welfare Workforce Institute. (2011). Child welfare workforce demographics (2000-2010): Snapshot of the frontline child welfare caseworker. Albany, NY. Retrieved March 7, 2017 from https://www.ncwwi.org/files/ Workforce_Demographic_Trends_May2011.pdf