Michigan agencies seek strategies to address child welfare worker shortage

Michigan's child welfare workers have served on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the state is currently facing what one industry leader described as a "critical shortage" of child welfare workers.
This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

Michigan's child welfare workers have served on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, doing what they can to build families' resiliency, keep children in their homes, guide youth involved in the juvenile justice system, and connect children in greatest need to foster families and adoptive parents. However, the state is currently facing what one industry leader described as a "critical shortage" of child welfare workers.

"COVID has put a huge added stress on the workers on the frontlines, but child welfare workers have received very little public or governmental recognition or hazard pay," says Duane Breijak, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers' Michigan chapter. "When they make home visits, they are putting themselves in harm's way."

However, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and other Michigan agencies are considering a variety of strategies to fill the need for workers.
Demetrius Starling.
"We do everything we can to support our staff, as needed, in these difficult situations," says Demetrius Starling, executive director of the MDHHS Children's Services Agency. "A lot of things have happened as a result of the pandemic, including the social work climate leading to some of our turnover as a department. We are looking at innovative ways to keep people on board."

Misperception, stress, and wages

While media portrayals often give the job a bad rap, removing children from homes is not the goal or even remotely on the to-do list of most child welfare workers.

"When the public thinks about child welfare workers, they often don't have a positive image because of media and TV representations of them taking children away, separating families," Breijak says. "That's not what the job is and does in the long term."

When it comes to meeting the needs of youth, the Children's Services Agency takes a holistic approach that puts families front and center. Its child welfare workers provide parents with parenting classes, mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and connections to community resources that address social determinants of health impacting the family – for example, access to food, housing, employment, health care, or transportation.

"We provide resources that are beneficial to the family as a whole," Starling says. "We also provide resources to families so children can safely reunite in their homes with parents or be removed if they need to be and find foster homes for those children. Our child welfare workers also provide support to youth in the juvenile justice system so they can safely return to their communities."

Misperception of what child welfare workers do may be one reason that people shy away from this career, but other reasons are contributing to the shortages among this essential workforce in Michigan. The starting pay for a worker at a nonprofit, accredited child welfare agency is around $10-$12 per hour.

"It is a very difficult field to commit to. There is an extreme emotional toll for most workers. They work in a high-stress situation," Breijak says. "Other factors that contribute [are that] many of these positions at the bachelor's or lower levels have low salaries, administrative burdens, and a fear of violence when they are working in the field. These are also among the very lowest-paid jobs at the master's level."

Recruitment, retention, and virtual remedies

Starling notes that the Children's Service Agency is considering incentives like shift premiums, bonuses, and modified work schedules as ways to recruit and retain top quality talent.

"This post-pandemic climate, combined with increases in pay and benefits in the general workforce, are making it more difficult to recruit top talent, not just in the public sector. The private sector is dealing with this as well," Starling says. "We're working hard. Our folks have a vision in place. This isn't something that is going away. We will continue coming to the table to talk about ideas and strategies for retaining and recruiting folks. We are also reaching out to our unions, private partners, and people in the community to glean ideas on how we can recruit and retain top-level staff. Our youth and families deserve to have our best and brightest on these jobs."

The agency is also forging new partnerships to recruit more child welfare workers via virtual job fairs and outreach to students in college social work programs, not only in Michigan but also in nearby states. Breijak estimates that 6,500 of Michigan's college students are enrolled in social work programs.
Duane Breijak.
"In Michigan, many of our schools of social work have partnerships that create a pipeline to place students in internships that will hopefully lead to careers once they graduate," Breijak says. "This has really been important to try to increase that area of our workforce."

He notes that while COVID-19 has taken a toll on the child welfare workforce, it has also inspired new strategies that may reduce the impacts of this workforce shortage. Telehealth and other virtual options have proven highly successful as a long-term social work strategy.

"A lot of folks thrive with these virtual options," Breijak says. "For some, transportation is an issue or they have to miss work to attend face-to-face meetings.  And virtual options make more things accessible. If there's not an expert in your area, you can connect with social workers all across the state."

While some of Michigan's counties lack a practicing psychiatrist or full-service hospital, Breijak says that every county has social workers helping children.  

"Child welfare workers are in the schools, in hospital systems, in nonprofits, and in government," he says. "There are social workers in everyone's circle, whether they know it or not."

Redefining child welfare work in Detroit

One shining example of child welfare work in Michigan is a pilot program, run by the MDHHS and Brilliant Detroit, that approaches child abuse and neglect through a preventive strategy that enlists peer parent partners to help address social determinants of health among at-risk families. These mentors offer lived experience, have children of their own, and complete extensive training in mental health peer support and how to work within MDHHS systems. In 2020, five ZIP codes in Wayne County led the state in the number of children removed from their homes and placed in foster care. This program offers support to families at risk for abuse and neglect before it happens.
Helen Paige, a parent partner in the pilot program.
"We have found that needs are increasing, not decreasing," says Cindy Eggleton, co-founder and CEO of Brilliant Detroit. "It's important to be there — not just in a crisis, but to walk alongside families. These are difficult times for a lot of families. Particularly for us and our organization, we are reaching out more and allowing a little more grace. People are overwhelmed. It's about not giving up on each other and keeping things moving forward."

Expanding this preventive model is another way state and nonprofit agencies could help address the shortage of degreed child welfare workers. Breijak agrees that programs like Brilliant Detroit's and the MDHHS Protect MiFamily project, a 15-month in-home prevention and preservation service for families at risk, will be key to addressing the lack of child welfare workers in the future.

"Lowering the total rates of children in foster care, working to expand home visiting programs, and lots of other things happening will decrease the need in theory," he says. "There's a lot of good work happening both at the clinical and macro level, partnerships and stronger policies that make sure our children are in better situations."

However, frontline child welfare workers will always be essential to ensure the physical wellbeing and mental health of Michigan's children. When asked why a person should consider child welfare work as a career, Eggleton gives a persuasive answer.

"The reward is that you can be that person that changes a child's life and puts them on a path for the future," she says. "There is no career more difficult in some ways, but nothing is more rewarding. This is some of the most important work if you want to make a difference in your world and change lives."

A freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness, and the arts. She is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media and chairs The Tree Amigos, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her finest accomplishment is her five amazing adult children. You can contact Estelle at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.

Duane Breijak photos by Roxanne Frith. Helen Paige and Cindy Eggleton photos by Nick Hagen. Demetrius Starling photo courtesy of MDHHS.