Currently, the field of child welfare is in a state of crisis, IMO. A workforce crisis, that is. Nearly every state has experienced significant challenges with recruiting and retaining a highly qualified workforce. This workforce challenge has resulted in child welfare systems struggling to achieve positive outcomes for vulnerable kids and families.
Sure, there are isolated instances of jurisdictions that have resolved this problem. However, their numbers are small compared to the number of child welfare programs that are struggling with workforce issues. Despite receiving a great deal of attention, workforce challenges continue. The Governmental Accounting Office (GAO) has researched and written about it. Congress has passed legislation to address it. Former Senator Hillary Clinton proposed the National Academy of Sciences study it. The Children’s Bureau has funded resource centers to address it. Researchers have studied and evaluated it. The media and general public have blamed it. And while workforce is on the minds of many, little progress has been made to resolve the problem.
I have believed for some time the field of child welfare needs its own degree program in higher education. Generally, I try to ‘back door’ this conversation as there are strong advocates for requiring an Masters of Social Work (MSW) or at the very least, a Bachelors of Social Work (BSW) for child welfare caseworkers. While I would like to join in this, I see many challenges that have not and probably will not be overcome by social work programs. The basis for this opinion is as follows:
1) The current social work programs in higher education do not have the capacity to train the number of case workers needed. Even if turnover is significantly reduced and workers stayed in positions for 20 or 30 years (which is highly unlikely, given current workforce trends in most fields), it may take decades in some states to produce the number of graduates necessary to fill the number of positions.
2) Most social work programs focus on preparing graduates to provide therapeutic services, which has limited application in most public child welfare positions. While strong interpersonal and counseling skills are a vital component of child welfare positions, the reality is that caseworkers often spend a great deal of time on administrative tasks such as data entry, managing case files, coordinating services, and writing court reports.
3) The type of person who chooses social work as a college major tends to function best in environments where they are interacting with others much of the time, and tend to dislike administrative tasks such as those that are major components of a position in child welfare. While almost everyone would say there are tasks they like better than others, most people perform best in positions where they are doing what they enjoy most of the time.
As a former supervisor in public child welfare, one of the main reasons employees gave for leaving the job was the limited amount of time devoted to working with people and the heavy paperwork burden associated with the job.
4) Many social work programs have limited, if any, course offerings specific to a career in child welfare. Interestingly, I just checked out a list of the top rated social work programs in the US. I clicked on links to three of the top 15 to find their course options in child welfare. One of them had ONE course in child abuse and neglect. The other two had no specific offerings in child welfare. It may be that child welfare is covered in some courses that aren’t specifically focused on this. However, I could find nothing to verify this.
5) The primary skill set of monitoring outcomes and negotiating across multiple systems that is required in public child welfare positions is rarely taught in social work programs. Those who are successful in public child welfare settings are able to work effectively with a variety of service providers, attorneys, court systems, educators, and families, while achieving positive outcomes for children and youth. The mindset required to be effective as a negotiator, outcome monitor, and documenter is often at odds with the therapeutic approach traditionally taught in social programs.
6) Child welfare is constantly evolving and those able to work effectively in that environment are adaptable and thrive in the ever-changing landscape of working with vulnerable families. That is not to say that social workers do not possess this skill. However, the ability to continuously adapt to changing policies and practices is a unique quality that requires both innate and learned skills. The profession requires the ability to embrace this challenging and rewarding aspect. The child welfare professional must be able to assimilate the latest trends and research into their work with limited resources and, at times, limited support.
7) Effective child welfare professionals tend to be those best described as ‘jack of all trades’ rather than ‘experts’ in specific areas. The very nature of social work programs focuses on developing a specialty; working with specific populations. Some may pursue chemical dependency, others might focus on the elderly, some may identify specific illnesses on which to concentrate their efforts. In child welfare, case workers must understand many areas, including chemical dependency, youth and juvenile delinquency, early childhood and development, education, mental illness, and a host of societal challenges such as homelessness, poverty, and inter-generational dysfunction. Higher education must prepare child welfare professionals to understand and work effectively with a wide variety of issues.
Based on the above, I would propose that child welfare needs a new ‘home’ in higher education. Even if one disagrees with items 2 through 7, the number one challenge for social work programs is the lack of capacity. While it may be possible to ‘ramp up’ programs to meet the demand, this would take years, maybe decades, AND the unwavering commitment of multiple partners. Based on the last few decades, this does not appear to exist or be ‘on the horizon’.
So what is the solution? I would propose a Child Welfare Degree Program, perhaps under the auspices of a Human Sciences/Services college. More details on my proposal to follow. Stay tuned.