Can Technology Reduce the Stress of the Child Welfare Practitioner?

Information and communication technology (ICT) “has the potential to dramatically shift and enhance social work practice,” according to Berzin, Singer, & Chan (2015).  ICT includes tools that allow users to both communicate with colleagues and clients and access, store, transmit, and manipulate information (Perron et al., 2010). Such technology integration can create practices that are more flexible, on-demand, and individualized not only to the families served, but also to the practitioner. Mobile technology, as well as other technologies (e.g., gaming, social media, robotics, wearable technologies) will enhance practice gains and result in more timely, accurate, and targeted services (Berzin, Singer, & Chan, 2015). 

two women looking at ipadWith the integration of ICT, recipients of child welfare services may benefit from more timely interventions, improved assessments, and real-time feedback. In addition, services will extend further to engage those traditionally excluded due to geography, transportation, and scheduling barriers. Technology will likely shift the boundaries of social workers as they build networks of support, cultivate external support systems, move from the office to where clients live and work, and take on new roles of aggregating and legitimizing information (Berzin, Singer, & Chan, 2015). 

There has been speculation that if child welfare workers will embrace ICT, such tools may be able to reduce worker stress and burnout and the turnover stemming from this aspect of employment (e.g., Constantino et al., 2021). ICT could help address the following types of stress associated with child welfare work:

1) Stress that results from feeling torn between competing values of the organization (see the Competing Values Framework: Adams et al., 2008; Quinn, 1988): It has been documented that child welfare caseworkers spend between 40 percent (Oregon State of Child Welfare Staffing Study, 2008) to 50 percent of their day gathering and processing information (GAO, 2003). Thus, child welfare workers are often torn between the dual goals of meeting agency expectations for documenting:

  • case notes from investigations, visits with families, children and youth, and family team meetings;
  • results of assessment protocols that contribute to decisions such as substantiation of child maltreatment and degree of child safety in the home, child removal, child placement, and family reunification;
  • case plans that guide the work with families and youth in goal attainment;
  • syntheses of information from all these sources into court reports, case summaries, foster/adoptive home assessments, etc. (sometimes referred to as paperwork);

AND directly engaging children, youth, young adults, and families to understand and meet their physical, psychological, and interpersonal needs in an attempt to ensure safety, permanency, and well-being (Gibson et al., 2018; Travis & Mor Barak, 2010).

2) Stress in meeting the demands of the job under tight timelines often while juggling large caseloads: Child welfare workers have to complete the voluminous amounts of required documentation and meet with parents, families, children, and youth within timelines that are almost impossible to meet given the amount of time it takes to complete such tasks (Bott, 2019).

Having ICT readily available, could enhance caseworkers’ efficiency and productivity. It might allow caseworkers more time to engagement the families and children they work with – which not only may improve outcomes for families, but also lead to less stress for the worker and more job satisfaction. Previous research has not tested the connection between ICT and caseworker stress, or its presumed association with turnover. The QIC-WD is testing the implementation of a mobile application in Virginia to examine these connections.