Retaining Social Workers in Child Protection and Welfare Research

Research on Retaining Social Workers in Child Protection and Welfare

Dr. Kenneth Burns has completed the first in-depth analysis of the issue of social workers' retention in child protection and welfare in the Republic of Ireland. Retaining social workers in child protection and welfare organisations has been identified as a problem in Ireland (McGrath, 2001; Ombudsman for Children, 2006; Houses of the Oireachtas, 2008) and internationally (Ellet et al., 2006; Mor Barak et al., 2006; Tham, 2006). While low levels of retention have been suggested, until this research, there has been no research that examines actual employment mobility on these child protection teams. The qualitative part of the study examines the factors that influence the retention of child protection social workers, their career preference motivations and intentions to stay in post.

Phase 1: 2006-2012 (completed)

In this study, 45 qualitative interviews were undertaken with social workers in one Health Service Executive Area about what influences their decisions to stay in or leave child protection and welfare social work. These social workers’ views are examined in relation to quantitative research on the levels of turnover and employment mobility of child protection and welfare social workers employed in the same organisation. Contrary to expectations, the study found that the retention rate of social workers during the period of data collection was high and that the majority of social workers remained positive about this work and their retention. The quality of social workers’ supervision, social supports from colleagues, high levels of autonomy, a commitment to child protection and welfare work, good variety in the work, and a perception that they were making a difference, emerged as important factors in social workers’ decisions to stay. Perceptions of being unsupported by the organisation, which was usually described in terms of high caseloads and demanding workloads, a lack of resources, work with involuntary clients and not being able to make a difference, were the most significant factors in social workers’ decisions to leave and/or to want to leave. Social workers felt particularly professionally unsupported when they received low quality and/or infrequent professional supervision. The creation of a typology of workers motivations and career preferences in social work is a unique contribution of this study (see Burns, 2011). Researcher: Dr Kenneth Burns.

Phase 2: 2014 - (on-going)

Phase 2 of this study involves re-interviewing social workers from the original study who are still working in child protection 7-9 years after the original interviews. This longitudinal piece seeks to examine factors that facilitate social workers' retention, to track changes in child protection in Ireland during this period and to examine the experiences of "stayers"/expert workers in child protection. Researchers: Dr Kenneth Burns and Professor Alastair Christie.

Publications associated with this study:

Burns, K. and Christie, A. (2013) 'Employment mobility or turnover? An analysis of child welfare and protection employee retention', Children and Youth Services Review, 35:340-346. Link to open access version of paper.

Burns, K. and MacCarthy, J. (2012)  'An impossible task? Implementing the recommendations of child abuse inquiry reports in a context of ‘high’ workloads in child protection and welfare', Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies. Link to open access version of this paper.

Burns, K. (2012) .

Burns, K. (2012) 'Moving beyond ‘case-management’ supervision: Social workers’ perspectives on professional supervision in child protection', in Lynch, D. and Burns, K. (eds.), Children's Rights and Child Protection: Critical Times, Critical Issues in Ireland, Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Burns, K. (2011) '‘Career preference’, ‘transients’ and ‘converts’: A study of social workers’ retention in child protection and welfare', British Journal of Social Work, 41, pp. 520-538. Link to open access version of this paper.

Burns, K. (2009) Job Retention And Turnover: A Study Of Child Protection And Welfare Social Workers In Ireland (PhD Thesis), School of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork.  

Burns, K. (2008) ''Making a difference': Exploring job retention issues in child protection and welfare social work', in Burns, K. and Lynch, D. (eds.), Child Protection and Welfare Social Work: Contemporary Themes and Practice Perspectives, Dublin, A. & A. Farmar.

For further further information, please contact Kenneth by email at


School of Applied Social Studies

Staidéar Sóisialta Feidhmeach

William Thompson House, Donovan's Road, Cork, Ireland.