The Health and Human Services Workforce: Igniting the Potential

Part 2: Supporting and Enhancing the Child Protection Workforce

By: Jamie Sorenson and Traci LaLiberte


Minnesota is one of a handful of states whose child welfare system is structured as a state-supervised and county-administered model. Minnesota’s system spans a large geographical area made up of 87 counties and 11 federally recognized tribes. In 2014, as has occurred in several states, Minnesota experienced a high profile child death resulting in heightened public criticism and news coverage portraying the state’s child welfare workforce as being remiss in the protection of Minnesota’s children. The public nature of the scrutiny catapulted the system into reform guided by 93 systemic and practice change recommendations borne out of a Governor’s Task Force on the Protection of Children.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services was charged with leading the engagement of multisystem partners and stakeholders in what has been three years of rigorous and rapid reform to Minnesota’s child welfare system, extending beyond just child protection. To improve child and family outcomes, reform efforts have been targeted toward three primary child welfare system practice domains: child maltreatment report intake and screening, critical incident review of child fatalities and near fatalities, and child welfare workforce development, stability, and wellness. As anticipated, increased media attention and reform efforts in intake and screening have resulted in more children and families entering Minnesota’s child welfare system, further exacerbating an already taxed system and workforce. As we enter our fourth year of child welfare reform in Minnesota and reflect upon the lessons learned, sustainable collaborative partnerships have emerged as a primary contiguous thread driving our successes. Leveraging both structural and relational frameworks to merge expertise and resources is redefining who we are as a child welfare system and creating new possibilities for the development and ongoing support of our workforce, which ultimately drive improved outcomes for children and families. For the purposes of this post, we will describe four specific initiatives used to ignite the potential for improvements in the workforce: Development and use of a realistic job preview, execution of a workforce stability study, study and implementation of a new training academy (structure and content), and the implementation of the Collaborative Safety Model. Each initiative incorporated key input from multiple partners, with alternating leadership roles, using an implementation science framework. Realistic Job Preview With increasing rates of turnover, pending retirements in a senior workforce, and mounting caseloads due to the reform-induced influx of referrals, Minnesota experienced a child welfare caseworker hiring frenzy. Some counties modified their hiring requirements to accommodate the dwindling pool of eligible professionals while others sought to make their county more attractive through salary incentives and workplace supports. In the end, a statewide intervention designed to support the counties in high-quality hiring practices was needed. Other jurisdictions and field-based research have found great success in using video-based realistic views of the work in child welfare as a screening and hiring tool.

Realistic Job Previews (RJP) serve to screen in the right candidates by making sure that professionals have a thorough understanding of the job—the good and the challenging. RJPs also serve to screen out other candidates, helping them recognize that this may not be a good career fit. While it may seem to defer the number of candidates moving forward in the process, it reduces unnecessary and expensive turnover, which ultimately harms children and families being served. We created the new Minnesota RJP in partnership with state and county partners across rural, suburban, and metropolitan areas. County agencies have been incredibly pleased with this new tool and the accompanying strategies for its implementation in their hiring practices.

Workforce Study

In 2015, state and county agencies and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare partnered to conduct a workforce study to understand the well-being and stability of the current workforce. The study examined child welfare professionals’ intent to stay in their current positions, move to different child welfare positions, or leave the field altogether. It also looked at the impact of reform efforts as associated factors in staying, moving, or leaving.

E-mail surveys resulted in a statewide response rate of 44 percent. Analysis showed that 83 percent of respondents experienced secondary traumatic stress, 53 percent actively sought employment outside of their current position in the past year, and 67 percent reported being overwhelmed with their current job duties. Despite these significant numbers, 79 percent of respondents reported their intention to remain in their position in the next year and provided rich contextual responses for ways in which employees could be better supported through reduced administrative functions and high caseloads, improved quality of supervision, and development of strategies for employee well-being inclusive of attending to secondary traumatic stress.

Statewide Training Academy

More than 10 percent of the recommendations from the Governor’s Task Force on the Protection of Children were directly related to workforce training and development. The implication of all other practice reform measures is that thoughtful and comprehensive training must be developed to ensure uniform adaptation and fidelity to new practices. One of the first steps was a comprehensive review to make necessary modifications to a newly developed set of child welfare worker competency statements. Given the considerable training and professional development focus from the task force, stakeholders from various public, tribal, and nonprofit agencies gathered to examine statewide training systems in other states, their structures, pedagogies, and curricula. Through this interagency partnership, the team completed numerous site visits with other child welfare training systems. Sites were selected for their similarity to the Minnesota child welfare system or their innovative and successful training practices. Building upon current strengths in local training and incorporating information gathered from training system site visits as well as a research and practice literature review, a design for a new Minnesota Child Welfare Training Academy was developed. The design incorporates four elements, including system structure, training, training enhancements, and evaluation (see Figure below). The University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare partnered with county representatives and other child welfare stakeholders to package the Statewide Training Academy design with an accompanying budget into a proposal for review and consideration by the Minnesota legislature. The proposal is supported by public and private entities with considerable support from the employees’ union and community advocates. As a foundational component to reform implementation and a cultivation and support of a strong workforce, the Statewide Training Academy is a highly anticipated entity.

Collaborative Safety Model

Historically, Minnesota’s approach to critical incident review in child welfare leaned more toward increased workforce stress and blame than it did to identifying systemic challenges and necessary practice improvements to avoid harmful outcomes for children and their families. To shift this culture to one of greater balance, considering both safety and accountability, Minnesota sought expert help from Collaborative Safety, LLC co-founders Dr. Scott Modell and Noel Hengelbrok. They are described as pioneers in applying safety science to the field of child welfare by the Federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. Their work in Minnesota has expanded well beyond critical incident review to incorporate the principles of safety culture and accountability more broadly to practice, including, but not limited to, social work supervision, workforce wellness, and systems of continuous quality improvement.

As statewide implementation of the Collaborative Safety critical incident review process and use of the tools began, we made extraordinary efforts to engage professionals at all levels of our child welfare system. This early phase of an implementation science approach was inclusive and took place not only at all levels of child protection agencies, but across the field and into the community as well. Stakeholders such as legislators, reporters, academic partners, private agency providers, tribal partners, and attorneys are all participating in various stages of the learning and implementation process.

In our first year of work with Modell and Hengelbrok, more than 1,500 child welfare professionals and stakeholders have engaged in the Collaborative Safety Practice curriculum. In addition to substantially improving our critical incident review process, Minnesota has also made concrete practice shifts to move agencies and professionals toward a safety culture to improve staff morale, increase accountability, and improve child welfare workforce retention. Our work with Collaborative Safety has further developed partner relationships and facilitated a deeper shared understanding of challenges and possibilities for improvement within Minnesota’s child welfare system.

Next Steps

Collaborative partnerships are the heart of large scale, rapid child welfare reform initiatives, and provide the best foundation upon which new sustainable practice and service delivery models can be developed, implemented, and maintained. The Minnesota experience has provided the lesson that through strong and committed partner relationships, we can best attend to our most valued asset, our child welfare workforce.

It is through the development, stability, and wellness of this workforce that we can best improve outcomes for children and families. Minnesota’s realistic job preview and wisdom learned from the workforce study allow us to connect to those inquiring about working in Minnesota’s child welfare system and also to those who daily are attending to children and families touched by Minnesota’s system. The training academy redesign and the systemic culture change toward Collaborative Safety allow us to prepare and equip the workforce with necessary skills and support to ignite their potential to improve outcomes for children and families. As we continue child welfare work in Minnesota, the charge is to attend to the ongoing changes in the workforce, enhance partnerships, and push ourselves to share power and governance. It is only through these efforts that the best services can be delivered to children and families.


Jamie Sorenson is the Director of Child Safety and Permanency Division at the Minnesota Department of Human Services and President of the Executive Advisory Committee of the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators.

Traci LaLiberte is the Executive Director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare in the School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota.


If your organization has a compelling story to share about how you are supporting and advancing the H/HS workforce — or if you’d like to contribute a feature story to our bi-monthly magazine Policy & Practice, we would love to hear from you! Please contact Jessica Garon at jgaron@aphsa.org for more information.