Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2008

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Collaborating in the Classroom

University-agency partnerships are improving workforce recruitment and development.

By Jennifer Michael

They are not hard to find in schools of social work--idealistic, energetic young people who want to change the world for the better, one child and family at a time. After graduation, many enter the field of public child welfare as newly minted caseworkers and soon find themselves immersed in caseloads and long hours. If they are still working at it two or three years later, they are the exception.

With child welfare being one of the toughest jobs in social work, it's no wonder agencies continually struggle to recruit and retain workers. To address the problem, some state agencies are looking back to the colleges and universities from which many of their personnel came. State and county agencies are tapping into the wealth of knowledge and training resources universities have to offer their staff and, in turn, the universities are expanding their social work programs and better preparing students for the child welfare field.

The heart of this collaboration lies in Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, an entitlement program that allows states to claim a 75% federal match--or three dollars for every state/local dollar--for allowable training of state and local agency staff, as well as current and prospective foster and adoptive parents. The Title IV-B child welfare training program also awards grants to public and private nonprofit institutions of higher learning, but the Title IV-E program is larger. Both programs are administered by the U.S. Children's Bureau.

"Studies show that people who have come through agency- university partnership social work programs tend to stay in child welfare longer. People come into the agency ready to do the job," says Joan Levy Zlotnik, Executive Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research.

The Child Welfare and Adoption Assistance Act of 1980 created the Title IV-E child welfare training program, but few states began taking advantage of its benefits and developing university-agency partnerships until the 1990s. In fiscal year 1990, the Government Accountability Office found that Title IV-E provided about $44 million to train state child welfare workers. In FY 2002, 49 states received some $286 million in Title IV-E training reimbursements, ranging from an estimated low of $10,000 in Alaska, to more than $79 million in California, according to the House Ways and Means Committee's Green Book.

Kentucky's Cabinet for Health and Human Services has a long history of success with recruiting, preparing, and retaining its child welfare workforce through an integrated learning partnership with the state's higher education system. The University Training Consortium (UTC) began in 1983 as a small contract between Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) and the Cabinet to improve social services training. Today, UTC is a collaboration that includes all eight of the state's public universities, the community college system, and three private universities, with EKU as the lead university.  

The program conducted more than 39,000 hours of training for new and tenured staff, foster and adoptive parents, and community partners in FY 2006. Since 2002, it has provided 44,000 undergraduate and graduate credit hours to agency staff. The program is a lot of work, says Steve Fox, UTC's Director of Learning Development, "but it is making a difference, and if it were not for IV-E, [the program] would not be there."

A Win-Win in Kentucky

Levy Zlotnik says the key to successful university-agency partnerships is strong leadership at the state level. Many states, for example, have governor-level memorandums of agreement solidifying collaborations between schools and public child welfare agencies. Also key is viewing a partnership as a win-win situation for the university, the public child welfare agency, and ultimately the student.

In Kentucky, this win-win is clearly understood. "The universities get tuition, have an opportunity to participate in application of human service best practice, and the Cabinet uses the IV-E dollars generated through the universities' ability to match to support an integrated total learning development system," says UTC Executive Director Donna Harmon.

The interface between higher education and public agency is critical, Fox says, to create a true continuum of workforce development across potential, new, and seasoned workers. Kentucky's public child welfare agency employs approximately 1,700 frontline caseworkers and 300 supervisors serving 120 counties.

Two main components of UTC's child welfare training program are the Public Child Welfare Certification Program (PCWCP) and the Credit for Learning Academy for new employees not enrolled in PCWCP. All non-PCWCP graduates are required to attend the academy for 12 weeks. Trainers with the Cabinet, and faculty from Kentucky's three accredited public graduate schools of social work--University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, and Western Kentucky University-- coteach academy courses. Employees can earn nine credits toward a master's degree in social work.

The pre-employment PCWCP gives future social workers in-depth training for working within the state child welfare agency even before they leave school. The agency and 11 accredited undergraduate university social work programs jointly select up to 10 undergraduate, junior-level students annually to participate in the two-year program. Students receive tuition and a stipend in exchange for agreeing to work for the public child welfare agency for at least two years after they graduate, at a salary 5% higher than other new hires.

The highly structured PCWCP includes jointly developed courses on child welfare theory and practice specific to Kentucky. In addition, students complete an intensive field practicum within a local department of social services, and receive additional competency-based training through twice-annual retreats also attended by university faculty and public child welfare agency staff and leaders. Fox says the PCWCP has been "extremely successful."

"They have two years to get ready for the hardest job, in my mind, in government, whereas people off the street, even with the best training, have about 12 weeks," he says. "Our tracking and research point out much better casework. They make better decisions about child protection. Their attitudes in the agency are better. And the main thing…is they are not overwhelmed. That's what our students constantly tell us."

Retention of PCWCP participants within the agency is about 95% after two years due to their two-year contract, but even after seven years, retention is about 75%, compared with a 60% rate with a non-PCWCP control group.

Kentucky's university-agency partnership also involves ongoing professional development through an MSW stipend, leadership learning events, and special credit courses requested by the Cabinet and developed by the consortium of universities.

Mark Washington, Kentucky's Commissioner for Community Based Services, says the university- agency partnership is "a wonderful relationship" with a lot of "bang for the buck." His office hired about 170 new staff through UTC in FY 2007, and he anticipates hiring 200-300 staff annually in coming years.

Without the partnership he says, "We'd be like a lot of government agencies that just trip over themselves with paperwork and red tape. The training consortium allows us to move beyond that."

Striving for Consistency in Pennsylvania

When he started in the child welfare field as a social worker in Kentucky in the 1970s, the training landscape was "pretty barren," Larry Breitenstein recalls. "We really weren't looking at a systematic approach to how to orient and train staff to do child protective services."

Breitenstein went on to work in South Carolina and Pennsylvania, but he maintained contacts in Kentucky and watched as the state's training programs improved and expanded under the university-agency partnership. In the mid-1980s, when he became director of the child- and youth-serving agency in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, east of Pittsburgh, Breitenstein knew Pennsylvania could do more in terms of training and that good child welfare training models existed. "Pittsburgh and Philadelphia had some training and resources, but outside of the big metropolitan areas, there wasn't quality training," he says.

Breitenstein and other child welfare leaders in the state formed a steering committee and set to work finding a way the state could take advantage of Title IV-E federal matching dollars for child welfare training.

Although the process took six years, the Pennsylvania Child Welfare Training Program eventually came to fruition in 1992 and, like Kentucky, has experienced success in recruiting and retaining child welfare staff. Through the University of Pittsburgh, the program provides 67 county child- and youth-serving agencies with individualized training and technical assistance services. The state's Department of Public Welfare, state child and youth administrators, private provider agencies, and community members also are part of the collaboration.

"We put the county child welfare worker out there as the person we are all trying to serve effectively so they, in turn, can serve children and families effectively," Executive Director Kathy Jones Kelley explains. Jones Kelley stresses the Child Welfare Training Program's 70 staff are practitioners who all came from child welfare systems or another human services systems. They conduct a 120-hour core certification program for all new child welfare caseworkers, and 20 hours of training annually thereafter. New supervisors undergo a 60-hour program and 20 hours of annual training.

The Child Welfare Training Program staff stays abreast of the latest research and practice improvements in child welfare-- something public agencies typically don't have time to do. The program, for example, runs an Organizational Effectiveness Department that provides onsite technical assistance and support to child welfare agencies implementing evidence-based practices. It comprises three units--practice improvement, independent living, and transfer of learning. A separate Curriculum Development Department develops, for county use, curricula that support transfer of learning to the worksite and prepares trainers to present the curricula.

Although the state does contribute significant funding to the program, the federal match has allowed the program to be "fairly comprehensive," Jones Kelley explains.

For other states considering implementing or improving their own university-agency partnerships, Breitenstein advises they look first at what they want to accomplish with their training policies and determine their training goals. Secondly, they should consider how the public child welfare agency is structured within the state, how much of the state is rural or urban, and where ethnic groups reside, such as Native American tribes, then come up with a plan for implementing a training program consistent across the state.

"Answer those questions first about how you approach training," he says, "then look at how a university can work with you to bring down those dollars and how you want to use those dollars."

Expanding Title IV-E Dollars

Breitenstein has since left public child welfare and today leads a private agency, Adelphoi Village, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. In his new role, he has begun advocating once again in support of Title IV-E training programs, but for private agencies. Currently, Title IV-E training does not reimburse private universities or private agency staff, despite many public child welfare agencies increasingly privatizing services.

"Now in 2007, we are right where we were in 1986," Breitenstein says. "If we are going to make a change in how we service kids and get our private providers to really be tuned in with providing quality care for kids, then we need to look at a way of at least offering some of that training through the [federally funded] programs."

The issue has caught legislators' attention. In past congressional sessions, Representative Jerry Weller (R-IL) has introduced a bill to extend Title IV-E training funds to private child welfare agencies. He reintroduced the bill in 2007; at press time, the legislation was still on the table in Washington. Each year, CWLA's legislative agenda has supported the proposal.

While room for improvement in the Title IV-E training program remains, Breitenstein says he and other members of the original steering committee that made the Pennsylvania Child Welfare Training Program possible--most of whom are now working in the private sector--consider the project one of their most significant achievements.

"We wanted quality training, we wanted training that was accessible to everybody in the state, and we wanted the training available when you needed it, when you had new workers coming in," Breitenstein says. "What we are doing is growing the next generation of child welfare leaders."

Jennifer Michael is Editor-in-Chief of Children's Voice.


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