The D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, responsible for nearly 6,000 children whose parents cannot care for them, has begun helping its social workers pay off college debts.

The new Social Worker Loan Repayment Program is an effort to hold onto experienced staffers who help troubled families. More than 15 percent of the city's caseworkers quit in the first three-quarters of this fiscal year, government records show.

Created from $3 million in federal funds, the program is open to about 270 caseworkers. Employees receive half of the college-debt payoff at the end of their third year with the agency and the other half at the end of their fourth year.

Social workers who hold bachelor's degrees can have $10,000 to $13,000 in loans forgiven, and those with master's degrees can receive $15,000 to $18,000 if they stay four years. The money is paid directly to the lending institution.

A total of 138 social workers have been granted the benefit, according to the agency.

Nationally, child welfare agencies struggle to recruit and retain caseworkers because of low salaries, high caseloads, lack of training and feedback, and challenging working conditions. The loan repayment program is the latest staff retention initiative by the $200-million-a-year city agency. As of June, about 45 caseworkers had left the agency in fiscal year 2004, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The Child and Family Services Agency was under federal receivership for six years until 2001. Since then, the agency, which has about 5,920 children its care, has improved recruitment and increased staffing.

Last year, the agency looked at how it can keep the caseworkers whom it had attracted. Officials solicited employee feedback, established partnerships with local universities to allow workers to pursue graduate degrees, paid retention bonuses and reimbursed professional licensure fees.

The GAO also pointed out in a report on the issue that the city's average salary for a master's level caseworker is $41,440, compared with $37,097 at similar agencies.

Child and Family Services recruits caseworkers from local institutions such as Howard and Catholic universities. James Zabora, dean of the National Catholic School of Social Work at Catholic University, said the loan repayment program "adds one more critical incentive that will attract qualified social workers from our school as well as other schools."

Norma Hatot, head of recruitment for Child and Family Services, said filling front-line jobs in the agency is challenging.

"It's difficult when you compare what you learn in school and actually practice in the field," Hatot said. It takes about two years for a social worker to be able to handle a full load of cases. Agency statistics show that the average length of stay is just less than three years.

"When you finally reach that experience point, and are fully independent, that's when we want you to stay on," she said of the incentives of the loan program.

Catherine Howard, a caseworker in the In-Home and Reunification Services Unit who was hired in September, is eligible to have $10,000 of her $25,000 in student loans paid off.

"It's a great help," Howard said. "We're in a field where the pay is not as high as in other fields, but the education qualifications are high."