Fast forward to 2011 and the child welfare landscape is quite different compared to what it was back in the early 1990’s. While the role of public agency staff has shifted, some commonly held beliefs about the best training ground have not necessarily kept pace with the evolution of the responsibilities of the staff. Many continue to focus on social work as the best preparation for child welfare case workers. However, there are several challenges to maintaining a workforce of child welfare workers trained in social work. One glaring obstacle is that there are not nearly enough social work programs in colleges and universities to educate the number of people needed in the field. And of the social work programs that do exist, not all include the option of focusing on child welfare; in fact some do not even have coursework in child welfare. And I would venture a guess that few provide opportunities for an in-depth exploration of managing outcomes for vulnerable children and families. In fact, one of the complaints I have heard from social workers in child welfare is that they are not able to do the direct work with families for which they were trained.
Some might argue that a social work degree results in higher retention rates in public child welfare. There is some research suggesting this is true. Personally, I think that there may be reasons other than the degree that contribute to the retention rates among those with social work degrees. One might be that some social work programs offer tuition waivers if students work for a period of time in a public agency setting. So there is a financial incentive. But it could be even deeper than the dollars. Social work training includes learning about they types of situations one might encounter in the field. This is where, as a supervisor, I found that many case workers were ill-prepared. The reality of working conditions that include visiting crack houses or homes where poverty would be an understatement can be overwhelming to persons not adequately prepared for this.
Regardless of the reason behind previous research findings regarding social work training, the current status of the field is to promote positive outcomes for children and families. We are in a position of having a growing body of research on what outcomes are critical to the overall growth and development of children. We no longer need to rely on anecdotal evidence about children, families, and the services they receive. We also have information on how to best achieve positive outcomes. Information on evidence-based practices is a few keystrokes away on several websites. And our understanding of translating research to practice is evolving and growing daily.
The bottom line is that, although our understanding of best practices and research is evolving, and the responsibilities of child welfare workers are changing, the preparation for this work has not kept pace. I would advocate for an entirely new discipline within institutes of higher education. The coursework would include information on family dynamics, dysfunction, child abuse and neglect, and the myriad of other challenges faced by families. It would also include coursework designed to teach critical analysis of outcome research. And perhaps as important if not more so, it would include training in negotiating with service providers to achieve positive outcomes. All of this, combined with a generous dose of ‘real-world’ practical experiences would be much more effective in preparing for the outcome management work to be done in child welfare.
What would this major be called? My vote would be outcome management. I could envision this serving as a training ground with many additional specialties, both within social services and beyond. Mental health, substance abuse, and developmental disabilities are the first areas to come to mind. And there are undoubtedly applications in business, such as process or quality improvement, contract management, etc. This might even elevate the status of the major as being legitimate beyond the social service arena.
But the name is not important; what is important is that we have an adequately trained and prepared workforce serving vulnerable children and families.
(This is Part 3 and final, of the Professional Outcome Managers series. I promise.)