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The move in Oregon comes amid concerns about workforce diversity and recruiting and retaining employees.
Child welfare case workers in Oregon will only be required to have an associate degree, instead of a bachelor’s degree, under a bill Gov. Kate Brown has signed into law.
The legislation calls for people with associate degrees to get additional training or certifications determined by the state’s Department of Human Services in order to become case workers.
Oregon’s child welfare director, Marilyn Jones, had urged lawmakers to relax the degree requirements.
In doing so, she said workforce diversity was a leading concern, but also noted difficulties with recruiting and retaining employees.
“We want to honor life experience and continue to build a diverse workforce that is inclusive across language, race, class and culture,” Jones told members of a House committee earlier this year, according to a written copy of her testimony.
“In order to build a more culturally and linguistically responsive workforce, DHS needs the appropriate discretion to value and recruit individuals with lived experience,” she added.
Case workers in positions affected by the change conduct child abuse investigations and make determinations regarding whether children need to be placed in protective custody.
An audit Oregon’s secretary of state released last year describes the child welfare system as “critically understaffed.” It adds that “turnover and overtime are high, and an inexperienced workforce is taking on heavy caseloads, increasing the risks of child endangerment.”
The directors of social work educational programs in Oregon, along with the state’s chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, were among those who voiced concerns about the legislation changing degree requirements for case workers.
“Research evidence on the viability of the child welfare workforce clearly supports the desirability of more education and training,” they said in a letter. They cited reports suggesting workforce shortages and turnover are due to poor working conditions, not educational barriers.
And they said they were interested in partnering with the state to look at options apart from the bill, including state-funded higher education programs, increased training and licensure requirements for certain staff, and higher pay.
An initial version of the legislation would have eliminated all degree requirements for case workers, leaving it up to the Department of Human Services to set minimum qualifications for the positions. The bill was amended last month to include the associate degree provision.
The legislation enjoyed broad support in both chambers of the Oregon legislature. It passed the House in April on a 57-1 vote. The Senate approved it earlier this month on a 24-4 vote. Brown, a Democrat, signed the legislation into law on Tuesday.
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.