Universities as Community Partners in Child Welfare

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As the child welfare community establishes and maintains partnerships with universities in service to vulnerable children and families, the benefits of mutual problem solving and enhancing the quality of life for those concerned are evident. The Children's Bureau reports that community partnerships offer a network of support and a range of services, as well as encourage shared responsibility for ensuring safety, permanence, and well-being for children, youth, and families.

In 2008, Children's Voice published an article on university- agency partnerships improving workforce recruitment and development in child welfare. This article detailed the Title IV-E Public Child Welfare training program sponsoring public child welfare/university partnerships across the country. The Title IV-E program provides a valuable field education experience for students in city, county, and state child welfare agencies, and students leave the program with the competencies required for employment in these agencies. Schools of social work coordinate field experiences with numerous private not-for-profit agencies in their communities as well, but financial resources to support these placements are scarce, flexible hours for working students are not widely available, and staff reductions have affected the pool of qualified field supervisors. This challenging situation poses an opportunity for the child welfare community and local universities to form partnerships in new areas. Universities have important resources to contribute to these partnerships and can assist in the pursuit of child welfare goals in a number of ways.

Serving the Community

Many universities have missions that include providing services to the citizens and organizations in their neighborhoods. One such school is Morgan State University in Baltimore, which is designated as the state of Maryland's public urban university. Its mission includes educating citizens from diverse academic and socioeconomic backgrounds, giving priority to the problems of the region and its residents in its research focus, and providing cultural opportunities and offering programs of service to the community.

Morgan is committed to educating a culturally diverse and multiracial population with a particular obligation to increasing the educational attainment of the African American population in fields and at degree levels in which it is underrepresented. It promotes economic development by meeting critical workforce needs and collaborating with business and industry, helping to reshape the social, cultural, and political landscape of Baltimore and Maryland. Morgan's mission is manifested in various ways, including a commitment to community service, free online health resource information, faculty involvement in community collaboratives, access to cultural events, and even football players shoveling snow for neighbors.

Schools of social work across the country have embraced service learning as an important and effective means of teaching competencies while benefiting community partners. The Coalition of Urban & Metropolitan Universities advances the idea that while the focus is generally on service to and engagement with universities' host cities, the community contains an extraordinary mix of institutions that provide rich resources for teaching and research in many fields. Faculties at urban universities have been able to offer both rigorous classroom instruction and hands-on experiential learning and internships in the community. For example, the Rutgers University School of Social Work has established a Summer Housing and Internship Program for recipients of New Jersey Foster Care scholarships who live at their college or university during the academic year. The program provides secure and stable housing in the summer months, as well as paid internship positions for students. The program also offers skill-building workshops including technology skills, team building, and problem solving. At Morgan, seniors majoring in social work are required to engage the community by conducting a community-mapping project to understand the needs and assets of the community and work collaboratively to implement a service project relevant to the community. These kinds of activities may be replicated and enhanced throughout the country in collaboration with community child welfare agencies. When partnerships like these take hold, a rapport forms to strengthen and enhance the opportunities for successful outcomes for the children, youth, and families in the community.

Federal legislation authorizes support for child welfare, and of particular note are the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program and Education and Training Voucher Programs. Funded under Title IV-E, grants are made to states to provide services and supports to help foster youth acquire the training and skills needed for self-sufficiency. Across the country, Casey Family Programs has been at the forefront of providing funding, programs, and services to address the educational needs of college-bound youth in foster care. In California, funding provided by the Walter S. Johnson Foundation has helped address needs such as financial aid and housing to assist foster youth who attend college. These efforts provide much-needed support to not only help students enroll in college, but graduate as well.

Educating Competent Professionals

How universities are preparing social workers for child welfare practice in urban and rural settings with people of diverse cultural backgrounds incorporates an increasingly comprehensive approach. Coursework at Morgan includes values and ethics, public policy, life course development, clinical intervention, chemical dependency, research, advocacy, and community change and development, along with a significant field education requirement and specialized concentrations of study. This course of study is most relevant when developed in partnership with the human service community by public and private agencies working together to create a mutually beneficial experience for the student social worker, the agencies with which they are connected, and the communities they serve. We may best assure that the social workers of tomorrow have a solid grasp on the theories, best practices, and the art of social service provision if those of us who are highly competent social workers in the field increase our commitment to becoming field supervisors and instructors, providing hands-on training, and mentoring students. As partners, universities and the child welfare community work together to ensure that the education these aspiring social workers seek prepares them to provide the high-quality, evidence-based, strength-oriented, culturally competent services that children, youth, and families should expect to receive and that the community deserves.

Youth Served by the Child Welfare System

As social work education evolves, a group of social work students demand our particular attention: students who themselves have had experience in the child welfare system. In child welfare, it is well known that youth who are preparing to age out of the foster care system face tremendous challenges after becoming emancipated, often without the community or family safety net to provide support of their transition to young adulthood.

A 2005 Institute for Higher Education Policy report found that the rate of enrollment in college for young people in foster care is 10-30%, compared to 60% for young people who were not in foster care. Less is known about the challenges that youth in care endure when they enroll, matriculate, and graduate from college. At Morgan, it has been observed anecdotally that an increasing number of students choosing to pursue professional social work are currently in, or have recently left, the foster care system.

In It's My Life: Postsecondary Education and Training, Casey Family Programs reported that a small but growing number of schools have dedicated programs that take a holistic approach to supporting students from foster care with mentoring, academic advising and tutoring, and help with housing, jobs, and financial aid. These programs usually provide a single entry point--a 'home base' with a caring student advocate who is an expert on what students from foster care need. For example, the Orangewood Children's Foundation in Santa Ana, California, hosts a Guardian Scholars program providing assistance to former foster youth who are seeking a university, community college, or trade school education.*

Young people in foster care do not often self-identify in the university setting. In clinical social work courses, assignments requiring them to examine their family history, values, traditions, and beliefs, coupled with faculty efforts to create a safe environment, result in a few students sharing their experiences in care.

Jamar Barnes, a social work major at Morgan who was formerly in care, explains that professionals--social workers, counselors, and Scout leaders--are often influential in helping young people decide to attend college. "I was driven to transform from a statistic to a successful college student," says Barnes, who is the BSW Representative to Morgan Social Work's Student Organization. Barnes believes that having support plays an important role in the success of social work students--particularly those who spent time in foster care. "Resources are needed and should be available after emancipation, rather than viewing emancipation as a final goal," he says. "College students cannot survive on tuition alone; their safety and security is just as important for success."

Another effort to further understand the experiences of youth in foster care, particularly those who attend historically black colleges and universities, is an Institutional Review Board-approved study that is currently underway at Morgan, organized by faculty in the School of Social Work. Recruitment efforts have been launched to conduct focus groups with students between the ages of 18 and 24 who are currently involved with the foster care system or have aged out within the past five years. Given the need for more empirical studies examining the perspectives of this population on college campuses as well as the long-standing role of historically black colleges and universities to serve as an educational platform to help the disenfranchised achieve upward mobility, it is critical that such institutions not only identify but forge stronger partnerships with the child welfare system.

Efforts to Effect Change

As more youth age out of the foster care system and attend college, greater retention efforts are necessary to ensure that not only will these youth enroll in college, but that they graduate as well. The benefits of college graduation stand to have far-reaching gains not only for the youth in care, but for society as a whole. To that end, universities must realize that diversity is not only based on race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, or disabilities, but is also inclusive of students who may come from nontraditional family backgrounds.

Whitney Young Jr., the revered social worker and civil rights leader, believed that to improve access and address the social ills of our society, a philosophy of social change should combine social philanthropy, social development, and professional social work. He said: "In a human and dedicated fashion, we should apply ourselves to the business we know needs doing and can be done if each of us does his share." The merits of university and child welfare community partnership are clear, and the opportunities are significant. If we each do our share, we will indeed "do what needs doing" for the next generation.

* Read more about the Guardian Scholars program in a 2009 Voice article, "No One Makes It On Their Own," online at www.cwla.org/voice/0909own.htm.

Dana Burdnell Wilson MSW is the director of Student Affairs & Admissions at the Morgan State University School of Social Work. Belinda Smith PhD is an assistant professor in the BSW Department at Morgan State University School of Social Work, specializing in family and child welfare.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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