Precious Mission: Decreasing turnover in Erie County Dept. of Social Services

two children hugging.

By Jim Bisco


Marie Cannon

Marie Cannon.
Commissioner of ECDSS
“When I think about this work, it is in terms of a family. I see kids' faces, and not just numbers because of my own experience. ”
Marie Cannon

Child welfare is demanding, life-impacting work where keeping children from falling through the cracks of the system is paramount. 

In pursuing that precious mission, however, child welfare workers themselves have been falling by the wayside. Turnover in organizations like the Erie County Department of Social Services (ECDSS) has been as high as 34 percent in recent years.  

The ongoing partnership between the School of Social Work (UB) and the ECDSS is aimed to improve the culture and climate of the agency in these challenging times. The latest inroad to this end is a proposal and a grant to stem the turnover tide while developing students and ECDSS leadership to meet the challenges.

"Almost 25 percent of our child welfare staff has been here less than two years, so their experience is limited," said ECDSS Commissioner Marie Cannon, MSW ’91. "They come right out of school, and walk into the child welfare environment where the cases have gotten very complicated with substance abuse, domestic violence, the effects of the opioid epidemic and poverty. And so we were looking at what we could do to help develop and support our staff."

UB Associate Professor Annette Semanchin Jones, an expert in child welfare policy, was approached to assess the situation within ECDSS’s child welfare services. 

"One of the things that they thought might help was looking at organizational climate as well as their supervisory and lower- to mid-level leadership, and building capacity to create a good work environment so that once people are hired they will hopefully want to stay," said Semanchin Jones.

Funding for now and changes for the future

UB’s Semanchin Jones went to work on a proposal to help ECDSS adapt. The proposal outlined her findings that ECDSS’s high turnover rates were directly associated with negative placement outcomes, low worker morale and increased costs to the county. While research highlights the importance of supervisors in worker retention and effective child welfare practice, many of ECDSS’s newly appointed supervisors felt ill-prepared for their leadership positions.

In the midst of developing the proposal, Semanchin Jones secured a significant grant for the ECDSS from the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute (NCWWI), an organization that comprises leadership academies providing supervisors and managers with opportunities to become skilled in leading change and implementing results-oriented decisions.

"The county is really interested in building leadership at all levels of the agency," observed Semanchin Jones. "One of their goals is to concretely support senior caseworkers—those with more experience and skills—to get their MSWs so they can make the leap from caseworker to supervisor."

The NCCWI Workforce Excellence Initiative grant provides national resources that include a general curriculum with online modules and ongoing coaching. The ECDSS together with UB’s School of Social Work will develop a sustainable plan to continue those trainings.

Free tuition for social work education for ECDSS employees

The grant, now in progress for the fall 2019 semester, has allowed the UB School of Social Work to recruit diverse students committed to child welfare practice and provide support for four cohorts of MSW students who will receive free tuition and a small stipend. In exchange for each year of study in the program, the student will commit to a year of working in child welfare at the ECDSS.

The grant also enhances the school’s already-robust child welfare curriculum to include a focus on child welfare leadership development. UB will also provide support for a successful transition to work and provide support to field educators at ECDSS, which will further aid in meeting the goals of establishing a stable, diverse and highly skilled workforce.

"Part of the grant is exciting because any of the graduates coming to either the county or the community will have a greater depth of knowledge and a skill-base to work in organizations that serve vulnerable children and families," Cannon said. "That will have a long-term impact, benefitting both the ECDSS, and every student who goes through that program."

The other piece of the organizational change is examining the agency's work through a racial equity lens. "Because we see a disproportionate number of minorities in the child welfare and juvenile justice system, we’ve begun training our high-level staff about the idea of racial equity and we'll build that in further," said Cannon.

Another aspect of the program opens it up to diverse students, those who might not have been able to afford school. "This aspect of the program provides advantages for the students, the school, the Department of Social Services and, most importantly benefits to the clients who are our children and our families," commented Cannon.

Partnering for change

This innovative program continues the longstanding partnership between the ECDSS and the UB School of Social Work. Solution-focused, trauma-informed care has been the focus for the past three years, and it has involved the entire ECDSS workforce of 1,600. UB social work faculty members, Denise Krause, clinical professor and associate dean for Community Engagement and Alumni Relations, and Susan Green, clinical professor and co-director of the Institute on Trauma and Trauma-informed Care, have been providing employee training on a regular basis.

Cannon adds that the workforce has come up with their own ideas to address trauma, including trauma-informed yoga, health mindfulness classes, wellness days and an annual wellness conference.

The wave of change is advancing the ECDSS system, which puts the commissioner in an encouraged frame of mind. "This is very ambitious, and I believe my team is very courageous," says Cannon. "The people who do this work want to do it well, and they want to see good outcomes for families."

My own experience drives every decision

marie cannon.

Marie Cannon in her office at ECDSS

Born and raised in Buffalo, Marie Cannon grew up poor. "At the time, I actually felt some shame that we needed help," she recalled from when her family began receiving food stamps. "So when I think about this work, it is in terms of a family. I see kids' faces, and not just numbers because of my own experience. I can tell you that 146,000 people in Erie County receive SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps), but I see a Becky or a David. I know that every decision we make, policy-, regulation- or practice-wise, impacts a family. I've always known that I wanted to make a difference."

Motivated by a divorced mom who believed that education was key, Cannon earned scholarships and embarked on a career steeped in early child development and family engagement. "My life's work has been with children and families who live in poverty, who are marginalized and voiceless," she said.

Cannon came to the Erie County Department of Social Services in 2014 as first deputy commissioner. She was thrust into the acting commissioner role in December 2017 after a sudden resignation under trying circumstances.

She addressed the aftershocks within the agency with a stay-the-course attitude. "I spent the first three months just keeping it settled and focused because I don't believe you let the elephant stand in the room. You talk directly about what’s happening," she noted.

To help formulate the message and subsequent actions, Cannon initially sent out a letter using the solution-focused, trauma-informed approach. "Because of the surprise and upheaval, the message for the people was that we will stay focused on our work. We did three months of conversations across the entire organization, gave people space to talk, then brought some solutions because we wanted to keep things as healthy and positive as possible."

Resisting the permanent commissioner's post initially, Cannon sought divine guidance when presented with the opportunity to take on the position. Her decision was made one morning, when she prayed and randomly opened her bible to a Proverbs passage that read, "Open your mouth, judge righteously and administer justice for the poor and needy." She was officially appointed commissioner by County Executive Mark Poloncarz in March 2018.

Looking back, Cannon summons a time when she sat on the other side of the table. "I know what the interactions felt like. I am honest and open and I think I am gaining the trust of our employees," she said. "I share my upbringing and why I see the work the way I see it, and why I am adamant about doing it better."