Youth Work’s Revolving Doors Spin on… and on… and on

Bill Howard
November 1, 1997

When a staff member calls a special meeting, or says he wants to make an announcement, youth in congregate care can sense immediately what's up.

"Right away, they're asking: who's leaving on the staff?" says FIoyd J. Alwon, director of the Albert E. Trieschman Center, Needham, Mass., which operates training programs for youth workers. Direct-care staff turnover is so great in residential agencies across the country he adds, "young clients in long-term treatment programs often have 'seniority' and are more familiar than the staff with the agency's rules, facilities and "aspects of the organizational culture."

Worse, he says, employers of direct-care workers who are in contact with troubled youth throughout the day — and night — "typically require no specific degrees, training or experience. Initial orientation and training is minimal or non-existent and ongoing in-service training is woefully inadequate."

Though little studied and rarely acknowledged publicly, high staff turnover plagues the entire children and youth out-of-home care industry — and much of the developmental youth services field as well. The reasons vary from locale to locale, but experts in the field say the primary ones are; low pay, long hours, absence of career ladders and lack of pre- service and in-service vice training and skills to deal with sometimes difficult young people.

Field's 'Dirty Little Secret'

In today's prosperous times of low unemployment across much of the country and with better paying jobs competing for applicants the turnover rate is probably getting worse, says Alwon, who believes the problem should be addressed head-on if solutions are to be found. He thinks youth workers should be credentialed and, short of that, given standard pre-service training in regional training academies modeled after police and fire academies.

But a major handicap to attracting support for such institutions is lack of visibility: no one on the national level seems to be tracking very closely the rampant practice of providing little or no training to youth workers. What some call youth work's "dirty little secret." Several dozen agencies contacted by YOUTH TODAY declined to arrange an interview with a direct service worker who had moved on to another line of work. Many even denied they had a staff turnover problem but were unable or unwilling to provide data backing that claim. Some of these agencies advertise on an almost daily basis in the "Help Wanted" section of their hometown newspaper.

For the first time, in its recently released 1997 study of "Nonprofit Compensation, Benefits & Policies," the National Association of Homes and Services for Children (NAHSC) did ask a question about turnover but did not explore this touchy issue. The NAHSC survey found the turnover rate of all full-time employees in 414 member agencies averaged 25.5 percent in the
previous 12 months. Though the study contains salary data for every job description in the field (see Table, page 39), it did not attempt to break down the turnover rate by job category.

"Anecdotally," -said Brenda Nordlinger, NAHSC president, "what I hear is that direct care workers are the hardest to retain and I would imagine that is the biggest percentage of turnover." Reports from the field bear her out.

Well-regarded Starr Commonwealth, for example, with a total of 592 employees at its Albion and Van Wert. Mich.. residential facilities for youth reports an overall annual turnover rate of 36 percent. The rate for night staff, however, is 77 percent and for its youth specialists, 45 percent, the agency says.

Norman Powell, dean of advancement education at Nova Southeastern University. Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.. which schools workers in the social services and youth work fields said the turnover rate at congregate care facilities for
youth of direct care workers was "any-where from 40 to 70 percent in some studies that I'm aware of. The average length of stay for a direct care worker is probably about 19 months in the field."

Alwon said a 1987 study of 1,300 child and youth care workers revealed 53 percent had been in their current position less than 11 months. In the corrections area, a recently reported survey by Joe Rowan of Criminal and Juvenile Justice International, based in Roseville, Minn., has found that juvenile care workers have a 77 percent greater turnover than their peers working with adult inmates. Such turnover was "associated with the increases in the rates of juveniles
injured by staff."

A definitive study of 144 Minnesota agencies serving developmentally disabled children and adults that was completed in January by Sheryl A. Larson of the University of Minnesota revealed an annual turnover rate of almost 50 per-cent. Larson says a 1994 study of 175 newly hired direct support workers employed at 139 group homes found a turnover rate averaging 47 percent, in 1995, the rate jumped to 50 percent.

"Even more challenging, of direct support workers who left during the previous 12 months, 41 percent had left before finishing six months on the job, and another 25 percent left before finishing 12 months on the job," she said.

Many Job Vacancies

Turnover data is skimpier for the youth development field. In a 1995 report, "Salaries and Benefits in the Youth Development Field" covering some 899 agencies, the National Collaboration for Youth listed "average tenure” for various occupations and total vacancies. Average tenure ranged from 7.3 years for executive and managerial positions down to 2.5 years for direct service providers and 2 years for direct service support staff.

By far the greatest number of vacancies — some 2/715 — were for direct
service youth workers. The report did not indicate what this represented as a percent of all youth development workers.

In its 1996 edition of the survey, the tenure and vacancy questions were dropped — drawing a curtain on the current turnover picture.

Making Mao's Point?

Though they number in the many thousands, former youth workers are not visible as a group. They've been through the wars. so to speak. But they don't have any medals, or even a formal organization. They just put in a year or so at some agency and then return to higher education or perhaps a better-paying job. YOUTH TODAY was able to contact a few ex-youth workers and their laments were similar. Said one Californian who requested anonymity:

"The repetitive nature of the work (and it is repetitive) was both deadening, overwhelming and. nearly all-absorbing. Coupled with the low pay long hours and the daily-drama of dealing with some fairly behaviorally disturbed young people who seemed hell-bent to go nowhere fast. I decided to pursue other avenues of work." Another ex-youth worker now with Pennsylvania's state housing agency, Darryl Cox, complained about becoming fed up with the permissiveness of the -"culture" of youth work. "Many, many of the people working in this field " are sincerely dedicated and deserving of much praise, greater empathy and higher pay," he said. "But by the same token, too many of them are afflicted with a savior complex. They want to see and manufacture good in some young people whose behavior constantly threatens the safety of others and the continued existence of the program. They seemed unable or unwilling to set firm, appropriate limits on the behavior of young people in their charge. They epitomized what Mao said about liberalism being a 'corrosive element' in a revolutionary collective."

What got to Tim Cheeseman after seven years as an outreach worker for Huckleberry House, the Columbus, Ohio shelter for runaways and hopeless youth were the stress and low pay.

Cheeseman said he started at the agency as a paraprofessional while in college at age 19. He is now 31 and after obtaining a master's degree, is teaching at a Lima, Ohio high school. "I grew out of the field. The last couple of years were consuming. I was in charge of a program and on call. The stress became enormous,— I wasn't getting any sleep and spending 10 hours a day at the shelter. The pay was dismal. I started at $3.05 an hour and I was still making less than $20,000 a year when I quit. I had to live in cheap housing near where I
worked which was close to the Ohio State University campus."

Nonetheless, Cheeseman said. "I wouldn't trade my seven years in the field for anything" and misses the energy of the people in youth work "and especially
the dynamics of the young people themselves." Since those days, he said he has drawn heavily on his experiences for inspiration in writing-poetry — something he's discovered other poets who are ex-youth workers are also doing.

Managers Do Better

Some employers, like the Key Program, in Massachusetts and Rhode island, make no bones about youth work being a difficult, often dead-end job. About 300 of its 450 employees in that category are hired for 14-month tenures. Cynthia. Hay. the agencies personnel director, said boosts in pay by the state have brought out-reach and tracking case workers to $21,000 a year but without much prospect of progressing further. After six years a direct care worker could be making $22,000.

Even more than money, she feels turnover is related to the difficulty of the client population. "There are more and more difficult kids coming into care and we're seeing it all the time — kids who should be in a hospital setting. All this managed care business. Kids who need Department of Mental Health services are coming into residential care and group homes when they really are not capable of functioning. They're in a state of flux and shouldn't be there. Staff have to deal with violent and aggressive kids, more kids with sexual offenses. We have a lot of young staff who are not experienced in dealing with some of these kids.

"A second issue is a career track for direct care staff. We have professionalized and developed a lot of career ladders. So that "the experience you get here can get you promoted at Key or you can take it out and get a state worker's position. But where do you go from there? You either have to go back to school and get a master's degree to really move up in the field or to make a lot more money. You can move from direct care to direct care within agencies but we're all paying about the same. So moving from one job to the next doesn't necessarily provide a career ladder or mobility or more money."

Pay Is Low in Survey

Nationally, the NAHSC compensation survey shows very little movement in pay for direct care personnel since 1994, In the lower rungs pay hikes have not matched increases in the cost of living. Management and professionals, however, have fared quite well, with the biggest average boost going to staff physicians or psychiatrists — up some 82 percent.

By comparison to youth workers school teachers are also doing quite well. The National Education Association reported in July that the average teacher is a 43-year-old married woman earning $35,549 a year. Thus, Alwon says. "it may be many years, if ever, before direct care workers in this country are compensated at a rate that would make the decision to pursue two or four years of college education (in youth work) worthwhile." Hence his proposal for setting up regional training academies (RTAs) that follow the police and fire academy
model as a lower cost way of providing quality pre- and in-service training, tie views it as a "building block in a scenario of training, education and credentialing
that eventually ties in to community and other colleges for people who do have some skill, the ability and the willingness to continue in their career development."

If ever set up and evaluated, he believes the RTAs would show they help retain workers and thereby cut the considerable amounts of time and money spent on recruiting, hiring and orienting new staff. Norman Powell of Nova Southeastern University estimates it costs 'anywhere from $600 to $800 per person annually to replace a direct care worker and maybe more." The cost-effectiveness of retention has not escaped agencies across the country both large and small. Boys Town USA, for example, has created a new "Boys Town Scholars" program for its employees that enables recipients to pursue a master's degree in Human Services at Bellevue University in Omaha. The first nine winners, named this summer, were drawn from the agency's facilities at Boys Town. Neb.; Washington, D.C.; San Antonio; Philadelphia; Sanford, Fla.; New Orleans; Chicago; and Brooklyn. N.Y. One catch: winners have to agree to accept a two-year assignment at any Boys Town facility when they receive their degrees.

More schooling is a retention perk at Boston's Bridge Over Troubled Waters which provides shelter, medical and drug counseling services for runaways and other street kids. In business for 27 years, the agency boasts that 40 percent of its staff of 40 have been aboard for 10 years or more — some like Sinter Barbara Whelan, the director, since its founding.

She attributes the low turnover to careful screening of applicants on-going in-service training programs and strong supervision. "We give staff a lot of support to help them do their job well,” she said. Plus, rapid pay raises for good workers. Staff start at $21.000 and most are paid between $25,000 and $33.000 a year. Also they can progress to better jobs. The Bridge's clinical director, for example, started as a detached youth worker, shifted to drug abuse counseling, then to coordinator of drug counselors before being named clinical director. During that time, Whelan said, the Bridge helped her get her master's degree.

The upgrading of youth workers generally across America, says Alwon, is a long-term battle. He adds: "I've yet to hear a sound argument that says it's
much better having people without any education or training taking care of
what in some cases are groups of very complicated kids and their families. We have other very stressful jobs in this country. Like police officers, teachers, nurses. We've figured out for the most part how to reward them so people will seek these jobs. It's down at this level of the hard-to-document mental health sciences that people need to understand employing untrained youth workers isn't right and in the long run their incompetence probably is costing us more."

Resources

Floyd Alwon

Director

Albert Trieschman Center

1968 Central Ave.

Needham, MA 02192

(617) 449-0626

Fax: (617) 449-9074

Brenda Nordlinger

President

National Association of Homes and Services for Children

1701 K St., NW, Ste. 200

Washington, DC 20006 –1503

(202) 223-3447

Fax: (202) 331-7476

Norman Powell

Program Dean

Nova Southeastern University

Fischler Center for the Advancement of Education

Master's Program in Life Span Care and Administration

3301 College Ave.

Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33314

(954) 262-8701

Fax: (954) 262-3907

Joseph Rowan

President

Criminal and Juvenile Justice International

381 S. 0wasso Blvd.

Roseville, MN 55113-2119

(612) 481-9644

Fax: 612-481-6942


Howard, Bill. " Youth Work’s Revolving Doors Spin on… and on… and on." Youth Today, November/December 1997, p. 1.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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Comments

Probably I would feel same embarrassment and sadden with the process that they are doing, looks like it is just a simple way of cutting all things until it holds new manpower.

Best Wishes
Anthony Jcob Reeve
"works at <a href="http://caldwells.com/" rel="dofollow">http://caldwells.com/</a>"