A Need for Fresh Ideas on Training the Child Welfare Workforce

Tom Morton, former president of the Child Welfare Institute. Photo courtesy of Morton

The path to training America’s child welfare workforce often begins with more generalized training on how to be a social worker. Frequently, this preliminary work is done on college campuses, where bachelor’s or master’s degree programs are offered. With or without with social work training, it also begins with relatively short pre-service training provided by child welfare agencies.

I have worked in child welfare for 39 years. Ten of those years were spent in schools of social work, 22 were spent consulting on system reforms, and five were spent leading a large county agency. I don’t pretend to know entirely how we should prepare our workforce, but after nearly four decades I am beyond convinced that the status quo is not it.

Is social work training the right answer to child welfare’s workforce training needs? What follows are reflections and observations based on that experience. I do not attempt here to support my observations with extensive research due to the limitations of both space and availability of research needed to either accept or reject my suppositions.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman speaks to the complexity of medical practice. Because his statement provides a useful point of departure, I have paraphrased it by substituting words highlighted in italics for his original words:

To be good at assessment, a child welfare caseworker needs to acquire a large set of labels for underlying conditions and contributing factors, each of which binds an idea of the underlying conditions and contributing factors, possible antecedents and causes, developments and consequences, and possible interventions to treat or mitigate the underlying conditions and contributing factors. Learning child welfare practice consists in part of learning the language of child welfare practice.

Learning child welfare practice also requires being able to implement a defined range of interventions directly, as well as refer clients for specialized services.

If one accepts Kahneman’s precept, the relevance of social work training hinges on whether or not it reliably produces the necessary and sufficient set of skills in each of these areas to effectively serve maltreating families, their children and related parts of their ecosystem.

In my experience, social work training does not do this. The existence of gaps is supported by the fact that public child welfare agencies devote considerable resources to designing pre- and in-service training that compensate for skills they find not to be present even when hiring social work graduates.

In fairness, social work education serves the workforce needs of a wide range of human service settings. It has a long and mostly successful history of employing a generalist approach. The Council on Social Work Education accreditation standards do allow for some degree of specialization for grad students, though not so much for those pursuing a bachelor’s degree. The accreditation guidelines do require that schools of social work teach competencies associated with assessment of individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities along with associated competencies in interventions.

But the guidelines do not require specific instruction in these practices with maltreating families and children nor standardization of this instruction across schools. So, it is possible to graduate with either degree having never taken a course specific to assessing and treating maltreating families, let alone a comprehensive course of study in this area.

Schools of social work also vary in size, and the number of faculty on staff with direct practice experience in public child welfare agencies can vary from several to none. This in turn makes it possible that a social work graduate might either never have studied under a professor with direct child protective services, foster care or adoption experience, or may have done coursework under several.

The main point is that it cannot be assumed that every graduate comes with the same platform of competencies, or for that matter, the complete set needed to serve maltreating families effectively.

This is not meant to dispute certain advantages people with social work degrees bring to public child welfare agencies when compared with other degrees (see Alberta Ellett’s research for examples). But comparative advantages are not the same as specific, necessary and sufficient comprehensive competencies across the range of abilities suggested by my paraphrase of Kahneman’s statement. One only has to look at the observations of the National Research Council about the complexity of child maltreatment found in their 1993 work Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect or their 2014 follow-up.

Why does this matter? If social work training does not provide a comprehensive basis for child maltreatment practice reliably across all graduates, does the pre- and in-service training provided by public child welfare agencies reliably fill the gaps? Again, I’d say no. The limitations on these training programs are many, not the least of which is their length which significantly limits comprehensiveness.

Where does this leave us? It seems highly unlikely that schools of social work, given the economies of scale they face, would ever likely be able to devote necessary resources to such a degree of specialization in child maltreatment practice. Nor does it seem likely that individual schools of social work would be able to attract a sufficient pool of students to justify this allocation of such resources to a true child maltreatment specialization.

As an alternative, universities could create distinct specializations in child welfare practice analogous to what one finds in nursing or pharmacy. But this would necessitate a huge infusion of new resources and probably also face the same difficult economies of scale.

So, for the time being, public and private child welfare agencies along with the families and children they serve are left holding a Gordian knot, forced to satisfice rather than optimize when it comes to the capacity to reliably produce the outcomes for which the federal government and public hold them accountable.

If social work training is going to remain the principle resource for the child welfare workforce, then it needs to engage in serious introspection about what is missing and how to fill in the gaps. Otherwise, investments are needed in new degree programs capable of producing the more complete set of competencies needed for successful child maltreatment interventions. In the end, either way one is left to ask, “How are we working to solve this problem rather than just live with it?”

Tom Morton is the former president of the Child Welfare Institute, and former director of the Clark County Department of Family Services in Nevada.

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