MSU leads child welfare workforce national initiatives

Research Topics > MSU leads child welfare workforce national initiatives

For a child welfare agency to achieve its mission, it must attract, develop, and retain a skilled and responsive workforce. The consequences of staff turnover for successful outcomes for children and families has highlighted the importance of a consistent professional relationship and implementation of a thoughtful case plan. Even the most evidence-based interventions and robust practice models will flounder if there is not a competent, ethical and talented workforce. Consequently, the U.S. Children’s Bureau has focused intensively on workforce development for nearly two decades.

The Children’s Bureau funded a five-year project on staff retention and supervisory competence from 2003–2008. In 2008, it funded a major intervention to support child welfare: the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute (NCWWI). NCWWI is a federally funded Institute dedicated to increasing child welfare practice effectiveness through diverse partnerships that focus on workforce systems development, organizational interventions, and change leadership, using data-driven capacity building, education, and technical assistance ( This five-year Institute was funded again in 2013, and a third five-year term was just awarded in October 2018.

NCWWI is a consortium of universities, and building on MSU’s federal staff retention grant in 2003, MSU School of Social Work has been a major partner in this consortium in all three funding cycles. Other universities in the consortium include the University at Albany/SUNY (lead), the University of Denver, University of Maryland and the University of Southern Maine. In NCWWI III, we will work with jurisdictions and tribes to build organizational capacity and workforce effectiveness to enhance the agency’s ability to recruit, develop, and retain skilled staff, foster adaptive change-oriented leadership, build a positive agency climate, and engage academic partners to educate child welfare professionals.

NCWWI logoNCWWI includes:
  • A University Partnership Program: traineeships for students, strengthening child welfare curriculum, and promoting agency partnerships
  • Leadership Academy for Deans and Directors (LADD)
  • Leadership Academy for Middle Managers (LAMM)
  • Leadership Academy for Supervisors (LAS)
  • Workforce Excellence projects with child welfare jurisdictions, knowledge and resource development (LinkD)
  • and other elements
For a child welfare agency to achieve its mission, it must attract, develop, and retain a skilled and responsive workforce. The consequences of staff turnover for successful outcomes for children and families has highlighted the importance of a consistent professional relationship and implementation of a thoughtful case plan.

Although the primary focus of NCWWI has been a range of consultation, technical assistance, and training approaches, there has been a consistent emphasis on evaluation and research. In the staff retention grants that laid the foundation for NCWWI, MSU studied why competent veteran workers stay in their agencies (rather than focusing on why they leave), what attracts students to child welfare work, and successful strategies for training supervisors.

During NCWWI I (2008–2013), MSU led the University Partnership (UP) program within the overall Institute. The UP program supported 11 universities in creating traineeship programs (scholarships for students aiming to work in child welfare) and curriculum development. The evaluation of the project produced several key findings: (1) students expressed high satisfaction with their BSW and MSW coursework and field education experiences with an emphasis on child welfare; (2) based on self-ratings, MSW students generally noted a higher rate of competency than BSW students, but all students showed strong gains based on pre- and post-tests of child welfare competencies; and (3) new graduates experienced considerable stressors in transitioning from social work programs to child welfare employment, with almost half of the students expressing reservations about continuing in child welfare.

These challenges in transitioning to work were explored further. Some conclusions included: (1) new graduates experienced stressors that seemed to improve with time—the first six months of employment were a crucial time of deciding whether or not to remain in child welfare with improved well-being after those first months; and (2) the primary sources of stress were organizational in nature—workplace climate, quality of supervision—rather than the stress of the work with families (although that also posed some challenges).

Although the improvement and adaptation to the workplace over time was positive, the need to focus on workplace factors affecting one’s intention to stay on the job was clear. An emphasis on organizational factors that contribute to burnout and turnover was also clear. The need for schools of social work to consider their preparation of students for the workplace and their relationship with their new graduates were highlighted. Another lesson was the need for more robust partnerships between social work programs and child welfare agencies.

Based on these evaluation findings, in NCWWI II (2013–2018), MSU continued to lead the UP program but now with an emphasis on university–agency partnerships. Working with 13 schools of social work in 12 states, traineeship programs were again established, and strategies for strengthening the relationship between schools and agencies were implemented. These strategies included engaging agencies in the student recruitment and selection process, using agency staff members in the classroom and in enrichment activities for students, instituting mentorships to support for transition to work, and the development of structures and teams to facilitate communication and collaboration. Student outcomes, knowledge, and competency measures continued to be positive, demonstrating that with the development of a robust child welfare specialization students considered themselves competent; and this was supported by field instructor ratings.

NCWWI III is just beginning, and it will focus on agency-generated workforce development initiatives (Workforce Excellence projects) that will be supported by university partnerships and NCWWI technical assistance. MSU will continue to contribute to the overall work of the Institute with a special focus on university partnerships. Curriculum and field education innovations, with a focus on trauma and leadership development, will be special themes in this new term. We expect that the evaluation of student outcomes, partnership development, and topics such as the transition to work for graduates will also continue. In addition to working with multiple jurisdictions across the United States, this Institute has provided opportunities to gain knowledge and experience that has enriched our teaching, research, and outreach in Michigan and at MSU.

The NCWWI child welfare project has been led by a team of MSU faculty members. In addition to Dr. Anderson, key leaders are Cheryl Williams-Hecksel (Project Coordinator), Joanne Riebschleger (University Partnership Facilitator) and Gretchen Archer (MSU Project Evaluator).

Cheryl Williams-Hecksel
Joanne Riebschleger
Joanne Riebschleger
Gretchen Archer
Gretchen Archer