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Building a Stronger Safety Net for Children

by Elizabeth Hansen

The five-year-old child comes to school with a black eye and sullenly refuses to tell her kindergarten teacher what happened. Suspecting the injury is the result of abuse, the teacher calls the state child-protection agency, where a 23-year-old social worker fields her call. The worker asks the teacher several questions. The answers lead the worker and her supervisor to investigate.

The child's father had been drinking and slapped her because she had hit her younger brother. Now the father is furious the child's injury has been reported. "Yes, I hit her and I'll do it again," he tells the worker. "It's my job to parent. You're not a parent. What can you tell me about raising children?"

Unable to break through the man's anger, the worker seeks advice from her supervisor. The supervisor, burdened with paperwork and other administrative duties involved in overseeing the work of a half dozen workers, quickly tells the worker two or three things to do and sends her off to deal with the father, never learning if the suggested actions were appropriate or effective.

Photo of Crystal Collins-Camargo and Chris GroeberCrystal Collins-Camargo and Chris Groeber, clinical assistant professors in the UK College of Social Work, are helping supervisors in a 10-state region better educate and support front-line social workers.

This hypothetical case is typical of what happens in many child-protection agencies, according to Crystal Collins-Camargo, clinical assistant professor in the University of Kentucky's College of Social Work, and Chris Groeber, clinical assistant professor and director of the college's Training Resource Center. The child-protection system is "limping along in terrible shape," Collins-Camargo says. "We don't have very good research on what works so, by and large, people are out there just doing what they think is right." Also, child-protection agencies are bureaucracies where organizational structure dictates that supervisors focus on their roles as administrators rather than spend time working to educate and support front-line social workers.

How might the scenario involving the five-year-old have played out had the supervisor been more focused on helping the worker deal with the family? It might have gone like this: Before the worker goes out to meet with the family, she and the supervisor meet. She asks the worker a series of questions and role-plays with her to prepare. Together they work out several case plans for the worker to offer and discuss when she meets the family.

One of these plans is agreeable to the father, who signs the case plan and consents to work on what led to the abuse in the first place—his drinking problem. The worker then meets with the supervisor to discuss the details of the meeting. The supervisor asks questions: "What makes you think he is actually going to follow through?" "What did you say that got him to back down and listen to you?" "What is your next step with this family?"

With this approach, over time the worker becomes more competent in using lots of different approaches with different types of families, Collins-Camargo says. "And the family realizes that this worker really cares about them and wants to make a difference; she isn't there merely to offer criticism or to look for reasons to put their child in foster care." Workers become confident in their abilities, so everyone benefits—the family, the agency and the community.

Groeber adds that the social worker is also more likely to remain with the agency if she feels efficacious and supported, countering a major problem child-protection agencies have in retaining workers. Many front-line social workers leave the field not because of low pay, but because of the liability they face and the lack of support they get to do their jobs well. "Figuring out how to support workers so they will stay in the job is a mission for both Crystal and me," Groeber says.

To help accomplish this mission, Collins-Camargo and Groeber applied for and received a $2.5 million grant from the federal Cabinet for Health and Human Services to establish the Southern Regional Quality Improvement Center (SRQIC), which is housed within UK's Training Resource Center. Bottom-line goal: They are working to change child-welfare organizations so they can better serve abused children and their families.

The SRQIC established at UK is one of only four such centers nationwide. It fosters partnerships between child-protection agencies, university social work programs and community groups in 10 states, mostly in the rural South, to support and evaluate innovative projects designed to improve the child-protective services system.

Spearheading this project during the first year of this five-year grant, the University of Kentucky was funded to conduct a "needs assessment" in the 10-state Southern region to determine how the project could best improve child-protection systems and to build a collaborative network among these states.

"That's how the need for better front-line supervision was identified," Collins-Camargo says. "Solid, thoughtful supervision is a crucial issue because many front-line workers don't have the experience or educational background to do the extremely difficult work of dealing effectively with families." "The stakes are incredibly high," Groeber adds. "It's life or death in some cases."

After determining front-line supervision was a major issue, the UK center sought applications from institutions in the region for projects designed to improve practice. The four most compelling projects were funded in October 2002 for three and a half years. They are administered by the University of Missouri at Columbia, the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, and the University of Mississippi. All of these projects are cooperative efforts among university faculty, public child-welfare agencies and community organizations.

Collins-Camargo and Groeber have heard recently that the program has already reaped some benefits, that through one-on-one interaction with carefully chosen mentors, supervisors are learning how to better educate and support workers. And while the researchers are pleased to hear such anecdotal evidence, they want statistical evidence as well and are testing hypotheses in three areas: preventing worker turnover, improving worker practice and measuring how changes in these areas will impact outcomes for families and children.

"We're not doing this project just because we want to have more competent social workers, although that's obviously important," says Collins-Camargo. "We're doing it because we want these kids to be better protected." To determine the impact of this project, the researchers will measure three outcomes the federal government requires child-welfare agencies to track, including recurrence of maltreatment within a certain time period.

In a sense, the researchers say, the SRQIC is a "field test" for other such projects to come. "We'll be looking for ways to 'bring this work back home,' back to Kentucky," says Groeber, who points out that the results of this project will be known by 2006, the final year of the grant when representatives from all 10 states in the region, the federal government and national child-welfare leaders will convene in Lexington at a national conference to analyze and respond to the project's findings, and plan strategies for improving the well-being of children.

Like many of the social workers and supervisors they want to help, Collins-Camargo and Groeber both felt called to social work. Adopted as an infant, along with her sister, Collins-Camargo says she knew from the time she was in middle school she wanted to be involved in social work, and a summer internship with a child-welfare agency while she was in high school fueled her interest in child protection.

For Groeber the call came when he spent a month working in a hospice operated by Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India, in 1986. At the time, he was planning to go to medical school, but his experience at the hospice changed his plans. "Mother Teresa was such an amazing presence. Her genuineness and her dedication to making other people's lives better was a life-changing example to me." Groeber returned to the United States and took a job as a houseparent at a children's home in Hope, Kentucky. He also began work on a master's degree in social work, which he received in 1993, at the University of Kentucky.

"Improving the lives of children and their families involves many very complicated challenges," Collins-Camargo says. "By learning how universities, public agencies and the community can be strong partners in solving child-welfare problems, the field of social work will be better prepared to face those challenges head on."

"The problems that face the public child-welfare system cannot be solved by one person or one agency alone. We need our best and brightest at the table—it has to be a collaborative effort," Groeber says. "And facilitating this problem-solving interaction is truly an honor for us."

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