Brenda McGowan, D.S.W., says that preventive services workers need more positive feedback to stem high turnover rates.
Photo by Janet Sassi

First as a young Boston Catholic Charities caseworker helping pregnant teens, and then as a distinguished social work professor, Brenda McGowan, D.S.W., has dedicated her adult life to helping children in peril.

Fordham’s newest James R. Dumpson Chair in Child Welfare Studies is well versed in the ways in which systemic pitfalls can fail or harm children who already have been abused or neglected by their families. She spent 42 years as a child welfare advocate and 33 years on the faculty of Columbia University’s School of Social Work before joining Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service (GSS) this past January.

McGowan, the author of five books and investigator on countless funded social service research projects, was among a select group chosen to discover why New York City’s outsourced child preventive service programs have unusually high employee turnover.

A revolving door of employees in the grassroots agencies, McGowan said, makes adequate training and professional delivery of child preventive services more difficult. Yet these programs—designed to aid children and families before abuse and neglect gain a foothold—are the critical first line of defense against the dissolution of the family.

“It’s a big price for children to be separated from their biological families, and it’s often not good for them,” McGowan said. “The philosophy behind preventive programming is to provide help to families, whether it be parent/child conflicts, marital conflicts, or employment issues.”

Besides offering clinical services, preventive service programs are designed to educate parents, and to develop children in ways that many schools no longer seem focused on—creatively, positively and artistically. Many service programs offer workshops for low-income children in art, dance, sports, music or drama.

“It is clear that children and adolescents need to have something they are proud of doing, something positive,” McGowan said. “Schools have narrowed their focus so much that, due to No Child Left Behind, it is just about how they score on the tests.”

While it would seem as if a branch of pre-emptive social service would be personally and professionally rewarding, statistics show otherwise. In fact, many of those working in nonprofit child preventive services flee to public jobs with the Administration for Children’s Services or the Department of Probation.

In 2008, McGowan and a group of fellow social work experts completed a “Study of Workforce Retention Issues in Preventive Service Programs.”

They interviewed 538 employees from some 200 preventive services agencies in the five boroughs. The employees were typically 36 years old, minority and female, with a graduate degree, and earning between $35,000 to $45,000 per year as social workers or case planners.

Fifty-eight percent of them said they had thought of leaving their jobs within the last year.

Money, according to McGowan, is a standing issue within the profession. “Social work salaries are low to begin with,” she said.

“But what we discovered was that dissatisfaction with pay wasn’t the factor that made them think about leaving the most.”

The main culprit, according to the survey, was “contingent rewards;” i.e., preventive service program workers, like the very population they served, needed to receive more positive feedback, feel more pride in their work, and feel respected by others.

“For a lot of them, they are never getting praised for what they do,” McGowan said. “They are only getting checked.”

The workers also cited a stigma attached to those in their profession because they work with the poor. In the end, they receive more blame than recognition, McGowan said.

“I’ve learned never to say to a taxi driver, ‘I am a social worker,’ because it churns up a whole conversation about everything wrong with poor people, and stereotypes,” McGowan said.

There were additional contributing factors to workers’ job dissatisfaction, including inadequate fringe benefits and too many unnecessary policies, procedures and paperwork.

McGowan and the other authors of the study made several recommendations to the city. Among them are:

• Increase salaries and fund other fringe benefit packages to the agencies.

• Invest in public relations initiatives to improve public perceptions of child welfare work.

• Find ways to give support and recognition to workers, and allow for more professional judgments by staff by focusing more on outcomes, and less on regulations.

In light of the economic recession, McGowan said she is realistic about the city’s ability to address the first recommendation. She is well aware that the social work profession, which is largely female, has never reached parity in pay.

In her new position as Dumpson Chair, McGowan hopes to research what enables some child protective service agencies to effectively support workers with recognition, while other agencies fail.

McGowan’s longstanding experience in child welfare also has focused her attention toward elevating child preventive programs to a more professional and sophisticated level—one that encompasses providing interventions based on research and evidence that show they work.

“The research and evidence-based study on how to help families is being done,” she said. “Now it’s time for it to be applied.”

– Janet Sassi


Janet Sassi is editor/associate director of internal communications. She can be reached at (212) 636-7577 or [email protected]