Child Welfare Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development (QIC-WD)


Date of this Version


Document Type



Turnover among public child welfare leaders is prevalent. Across the eight QIC-WD intervention sites, leadership turnover was one of the most common implementation challenges observed by the QIC-WD team. Leadership changes can disrupt the implementation of a workforce initiative by shifting agency-level priorities, the organizational climate, or key staff.

Child welfare leaders may be appointed or hired in many different ways in different jurisdictions. In some states, the Governor appoints a cabinet-level child welfare director who oversees a stand-alone agency. This means that child welfare leadership changes follow the political election cycle with new governors appointing new agency leaders every few years. In addition, when an appointed leader leaves, there may be a delay in appointing a new director due to the pending political election cycle. This process can leave the leadership role unfilled for a time or filled by an interim leader or someone with limited understanding of the complexities of the child welfare workforce. This QIC-Take summarizes what our QIC-WD sites and team members experienced as it related to managing leadership turnover and what strategies they used to help maintain an initiative despite leadership turnover.

Across the eight intervention sites, every one of them experienced at least one leadership change. Some sites experienced multiple leadership changes over the five to six years the QIC-WD was involved with them. The departing leaders and their direct impact on the project varied widely, but reports of “agency leadership changes” were consistently reported by our sites in every year of project operations. Leadership turnover can have a positive, negative, or neutral impact on a workforce project. If the outgoing leader took an active role in securing resources, advocating for the project, making key decisions, and keeping things moving, their departure can be a big loss for the project. Conversely, if the leader was not a big advocate for workforce changes their departure can create an opportunity for someone to fill the void and infuse new life into the project. Furthermore, a neutral leader may slow things down because the project lacks someone to advocate for funding or other types of support and keep the project on top leadership agendas. We saw a mix of these new leaders. Depending on where the initiative was in its implementation, a new leader may have had a significant impact. In one site, for example, leadership turnover occurred at a time when hiring needed to be done and leadership decisions were necessary to authorize contracts. Their resignation resulted in the loss of project momentum and caused a significant delay in implementation. We saw that leadership turnover had less of an impact when implementation was under way and things were allowed to continue as planned. But when major decisions The Impact of Leadership Turnover on Child Welfare Workforce Initiatives QIC-Take This is the QIC-WD’s take on child welfare workforce issues, based on our experience Authors: Courtney Harrison and Megan Paul “I’m the third administrator in the space of probably four years, maybe five. So I think we’re getting to the place where we’re stable now, but that leadership instability, that leadership turnover, played a lot into some of the challenges, culturally as well.” – Sarah Henery, Administrator, Wisconsin Department of Children and Families “We take leadership changes as a given, as if that's just going to happen. I think most child welfare leaders stay about 18 months…Does this turnover have to happen at the leadership level? What would it take for that to be more stable? But if leaders do leave… we heard about how important middle managers are to keep initiatives moving in a Title IV agency.” – Randi Walters, Capacity Building Division Director, Children’s Bureau (Aug. 2022) 2 | June 2023 QIC-Take needed to be made, there was sometimes hesitancy on the part of a new or interim leader to do anything significant, especially if it involved a departure from a plan that preceded them. Even at the end of the project, leadership turnover can negatively impact a workforce initiative. For example, the leader needs to support any sustainability plans to either continue the project or adapt the process to inform other initiatives. The timing of leadership turnover can be good at certain stages but deadly at others, even if implementation is complete and the project is at the stage of interpreting results or making decisions about sustainability.

Leadership turnover impacts the entire workforce, not just those directly involved in a workforce initiative. The QIC-WD team observed the impact frequent turnover had on the organizational climate in an agency. In many places, caseworkers, supervisors, and even managers demonstrated a “just wait it out” mentality. This was most prevalent if the workforce initiative was not something that caseworkers or supervisors believed in or supported. They knew that the initiative was likely to fade away with the changing of leadership. Such attitudes can negatively impact workforce initiatives.