Posted Monday, November 21, 2022 by Laura Haffield

How Academic Institutions Help Strengthen the Human Services Workforce

In a recent blog on solving the human services staffing crisis, I mentioned wanting to shout from the rooftops about partnerships between academic institutions and local and state agencies.

My bias is showing in this area due to my time in the University of Wisconsin–Madison Title IV-E Public Child Welfare Training Program and seeing that partnership between academia and local child welfare agencies play out to the benefit of all stakeholders involved. Without that program, and the mentorship and funding that came along with it, I may not have become a committed child welfare practitioner who, despite transitioning away from direct practice, is still dedicated to this field today.

This symbiotic relationship between academia and “the field” is truly so important. Universities and colleges contribute greatly to our society, in both research and development and training the future workforce. They're always on the lookout for field placement opportunities for their students, so that they can get quality, hands-on learning alongside their classroom lessons. And they support state and local agencies in their mission to develop the next generation of human services professionals, while better understanding poverty, racial disparities, and the impacts and outcomes of programs and initiatives.

Why open your doors to outsiders or take on the task of supervising student placements, in addition to everything else your agency is juggling? Because in doing so you ensure a successful tomorrow for your agency. A few examples:

  • Universities and colleges can start teaching students what you need your staff to know before they ever set foot in your door. Academic partnerships for ongoing staff training can also relieve some of the burden off your own agency.
  • Field placements or other service-learning opportunities can prove to be a powerful recruitment tool when students graduate.
  • Some universities provide or can help fund programs in which students agree to work for a state or local agency for a certain amount of time after graduating, contributing to your recruitment and retention efforts. (This is not always through Title IV-E funding if your state has not elected to use those funds for that purpose.)
  • For new practice models, programs, and initiatives to become evidence based, even more crucial with the Family First Preservation Services Act, that evidence must be gathered through research on program outcomes. Academic partners are crucial to this process.
  • Your own programs can benefit greatly from academic study. We all must strive to learn about the work we do and continue to get better, become more equitable, and provide better outcomes for the people we serve. Data is power!

Let's take a closer look at some of these benefits of partnership, including real-world examples and best practices, in action. We’ll also discuss how to establish connections when they don’t already exist.

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Programs like UW-Madison's began to emerge in the late 1980s when a federal match became available to support both short- and long-term training of staff to prepare them for work in child welfare, and therefore increase the time child welfare workers stay in the field. They remain popular because time and again they prove beneficial. I spoke with several academics who described a powerful partnership between their institutions and local and state agency partners around training both students and established workers.

Prep for field work.

During their APHSA National Health and Human Services (NHHS) Summit session, UW-Eau Claire Professor Jamie Tester Morfoot and Title IV-E Coordinator Alisha Meinen described eliciting from local agencies what they wanted graduating students to know prior to child welfare employment at the counties, such as field jargon, CPS processes, and documentation practices. Jamie shared a great example of how students graduating their program have already completed the state required pre-service training, before they even apply for positions in the local agencies:

“The primary job of CPS is keeping kids safe. We have interns going into the field already knowing what that means. They already know how to assess for safety. We teach them how to use the state-provided tools before they ever go out.”

Statewide training academy.

Kate Walthour, Director of Professional Education for the Center for Advance Studies in Child Welfare (CASCW) at the University of Minnesota, described their partnership with the state agency around ongoing training of the workforce. Beyond numerous Title IV-E programs in the state organized in a consortium model, CASCW has also partnered with the Minnesota Department of Human Services to develop and facilitate the Minnesota Child Welfare Training Academy (MNCWTA).

A need for this type of training opportunity was first identified through the 2014 Governor's Task Force on the Protection of Children. After exploring other state-university partnerships (such as Washington, California, New Jersey, Colorado, and Pennsylvania), the MNCWTA was established in 2019 to better address workforce preparedness and stability.

Ongoing professional development.

Vincent Deberry, Executive Director for the Center for Public Management at the University of Oklahoma, described a similar partnership through a training academy. This one continues throughout a person’s career in the field, from their initial onboarding to further professional development. For example, when a DHS employee is promoted to a supervisor, they come back to the academy for additional training. (Worth noting: the Center has similar academies for almost every discipline, such as Adult and Family Services and Child Support Services. This helps with better integration and strategic continuity across the entire spectrum of social services.)

This academy is jointly funded through both the university and Oklahoma Department of Human Services, which allows for both institutions to provide a more robust curriculum than they would have on their own. Oklahoma Secretary of Human Services Justin Brown shared with me that it's a huge asset to the department when universities providing that core training.

Another approach to professional development: Minnesota’s CASCW works with social work faculty to translate research into practice and then create a variety of training modalities for the professional development of Minnesota’s child welfare workforce, including conferences, publications, podcasts, online modules, infographics, and "Child Welfare Training in a Box." CASCW staff and the social work faculty collaborate with state and county partners to ensure applicability of these training activities.  

Experiential simulation training.

Another interesting model comes out of North Carolina where Dr. Kevin Marino, long-time child welfare professional, has established a great partnership between local agencies and academic institutions through his work as CEO and Founder of the REAL Academy

In 2017, the REAL Academy partnered with Western Carolina University, Blue Ridge Community College, and an initial 10 counties in the western region of the state to provide experiential simulation training for the workforce. Dr. Marino described that the in-person mock simulation of assessing for safety goes beyond tradition role play. “You often know the people you are role playing with. With trained actors, in a physical environment, makes it as realistic an environment as possible,” he said. Thus far, this partnership has helped train staff in 23 counties in North Carolina. The model is also now expanding into other states.

Dr. Marino shared why this type of training matters:

“Not only are you practicing working a case but improving your decision-making skills and uncovering your biases. We've seen decision-making improve in accuracy by 35-48%.”

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The median tenure length of a child welfare worker is less than two years, and a study in Texas found that 44% of turnover is caseworkers within the first year on the job. These are just a few of the stats that demonstrate why recruiting and retaining qualified workers is an ongoing challenge for the field.

The rich training experiences described above that better prepare staff for the workforce typically lead to subsequent increases in retention, which is often a key driver for their formation in the first place (whether through Title IV-E funds or other options). But training isn’t the only thing that makes an impact. Here are some stories I’ve heard about how academic/agency partnerships can help increase tenure and decrease turnover.

Incentivizing retention.

Ellen Smith, Principal Investigator for the Wisconsin Child Welfare Professional Development System and Professor at UW-Madison, shared with me some promising data around outcomes of programs that provide tuition support, cash stipends, and mileage reimbursement to students.

For example, for every year students are supported through the UW-Madison Title IV-E Training Program (typically two years), they agree to work that same length of time for a public child welfare organization within the state, referred to as a "payback." However, Ellen shared students graduating from their program on average end up working double their payback. This means that MSW students supported by the program are working about four years, or twice the national average tenure in child welfare – so clearly it helps! Also, according to a recent biennial report on the program:

We see a marked increase in scores on child welfare competencies for our students upon completion of the program. Employers indicate that we are producing a well-prepared workforce and that they are very likely to hire a graduate of our program.”

These outcomes are likely in part due to better preparedness for this difficult and important work. In their APHSA NHHS Summit session, Jamie Tester Morfoot shared a quote from a local county who has employed students from their program, “Working with UW-Eau Claire Title IV-E interns is always a phenomenal experience. These interns are substantially more prepared for the realities of social work.”

Lived experience and paths to employment.

UW-Eau Claire also shared they have a focus specifically on how these funded programs can support diversifying the child welfare workforce and provide individuals with lived experience a path to contribute to the field—a path that otherwise may not be possible without support.

Program evaluation documentation for the broader UW system explicitly states that one program goal is to increase the number of trained public child welfare practitioners of color. These are the same type of goals as many local agencies, and programs like these can directly support those workforce goals.

Emphasize sought-after skills.

A non-Title IV-E-funded program out of the University of Connecticut has similar goals of providing paths into the workforce for employees with highly sought-after skills. This positions agencies to better serve all communities in their jurisdictions.

The University of Connecticut spun up a program in partnership with Connecticut DCF to train undergraduate students to become bilingual social workers to better serve Latinx families. At APHSA's NHHS Summit, Commissioner Vanessa Dorantes said communication in a native language is crucial in building trust.

During a similar session at the National Association of Social Worker's Annual Conference, administrators said the program came out of a true partnership between the university and the agency and is jointly funded. This program is a great example of how departments can partner with local colleges and universities on their own to create quality channels of recruitment, even when your state has not elected to use Title IV-E funding for child welfare traineeship programs.

Supervising interns in the field.

Student interns can be a critical component of annual recruitment, but the administrative burden of supervising field placements can be a barrier to hosting these field placements for some agencies. Kate Walthour shared how the University of Minnesota’s close partnerships with local agencies of Hennepin and Ramsey counties are mutually beneficial to both agencies’ recruitment and retention goals, and their own Title IV-E program.

Beyond the standard Title IV-E support, an additional University of Minnesota field coordinator responsible for the supervision of interns at Ramsey County is jointly funded through the county and university. The field coordinator meets monthly with students while in their internship and covers the administrative portions of supervising those internships, while staff at the county provide those quality field experiences and hands-on learning.

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Leadership at state and local agencies are often looking to incorporate the most up-to-date research and evidence-based practice models into their service delivery. They want to better understand the outcomes of their own services and programs and what could be done to improve those outcomes.

The Family First Prevention Services Act, which sought to dedicate more funding to prevention services, also requires that services reimbursed through FFPSA be evidence-based to be included on the clearinghouse of payable services. This makes the study of different services and practice models more crucial.

This too is a symbiotic relationship. Agencies need academic institutions and their resources to study their work, and academic intuitions need agencies to open their doors and participate in research. This can sometimes feel like a vulnerable position for systems like child welfare that have traditionally (and justifiably) taken the privacy of the population they serve as paramount but can appear closed-off to “outsiders” in doing so. Let’s look at a couple of examples of why opening up is so critical.

Aligning values, goals, and objectives.

Vincent Deberry talked about the important relationship between the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma DHS as it relates to research and evaluation. In fact, the Center was founded on the idea that comprehensive research institutions are well placed to help solve problems and find solutions across many disciplines. Their stake is a unique one:

“We have a long history of trust [with the department]. That also comes through how we operate – we operate on our shared values and have a lot of transparency. We're not here to make a buck. We have a deep understanding of the department's goals and objectives, and we try to align ourselves to that for the long term.”

The Center is there to support the agency as new policies come down from the federal government or new problems arise for which the department is seeking solutions. The Center also looks out for possible grants that could be employed in Oklahoma and brings those to the department. “We are behind the scenes supporting them and we bring some extra resources to allow their people to continue to do the casework,” Vincent said.

Informing leadership decisions.

The Center also helps agency leadership look at internal processes, policies, and systems that the department wants to understand better. “Let's say we're doing a workload study on child support. We go in and look at their systems and the data. We would probably do our own surveys and focus groups and follow-up, and then we can provide recommendations back to leadership,” Vincent said.

This work requires agency buy-in and support, but they receive great information that can help inform macro-level decisions and improve outcomes for the citizens of Oklahoma. Secretary Brown echoed the benefits of this partnership. “The University of Oklahoma have been amazing partners as we have looked to create some big change here in Oklahoma,” he said.

Program evaluation.

At the University of Minnesota’s CASCW (which co-loads the Minnesota Child Welfare Training Academy), research is conducted in collaboration with local stakeholders and Minnesota DHS to evaluate state, local, and nonprofit programs for outcomes and efficacy. Leveraging the work of faculty, staff researchers, and graduate students for this crucial program evaluation is a common model seen across states.

For example, CASCW has a long history of partnering with local provider Anu Family Services to examine research and develop evidence-based tools on increasing permanency and well-being for children and families in child welfare. Additionally, CASCW has assisted Ramsey County in implementing and evaluating Comprehensive Family Assessment, a model for child protection practice, an initiative is jointly funded through the Children’s Bureau.

These are all great examples of how partnership with academic institutions can help those in the field evaluate internal and external programs and deliver more equitable services.

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Now that you’ve seen the many benefits of establishing a partnership between academic institutions and state and local human services agencies, what happens next? Here are a few steps to start building these connections and making sure they last:

Checkmark Start taking student placements: Find the academics in your area who are passionate about developing the next generation of human services professionals and get to work on building relationships that can help your agency establish a pipeline of enthusiastic talent. If there are barriers to taking student placements (lack of supervising staff with credentials, lack of resources), start conversations to see if there are creative ways of tackling those together.
Checkmark Review your policies to ensure they do not hinder students from wanting to join your staff: Are your hiring policies inadvertently creating barriers to attracting motivated students? Are your certification or licensing requirements going to delay them from getting started on meaningful work? Are you embracing hybrid/remote work, modern technology tools, psychological safety culture, wellness-driven benefits, and other expectations of the new generation of social workers?
Checkmark Reach out to local schools of social work to collaborate on stipend programming: Tuition reimbursement, licensure/certification exam reimbursement, mileage reimbursement, and other financial supports of the like that can be powerful recruitment and retention tools, especially for recent graduates.
Checkmark Advocate for Title IV-E funds dedicated to the support of educating the workforce: Opportunities for education, training, and professional development are critical in keeping your workers fulfilled. If your state currently does not utilize dedicated Title IV-E funds for training programs, connect with state stakeholders and explain the impact a change in allocation could have for your agency. For program areas outside of child welfare, investigate if similar funding could be applied to other areas of human services and make your voice heard.
Checkmark Share your needs with local academics looking to take on research and evaluation in your program areas: Do you have programs and services, whether internal or contracted, that you’d like to better understand outcomes for? Do you have a problem that you’re trying to find answers for? Academics are uniquely positioned and equipped to assist with these needs and can be great partners in evaluating services and making recommendations. Find your local equivalents of CASCW and the Center for Public Management and start forming relationships.

I’m clearly passionate about the opportunities that both agencies and academic institutions can gain from partnerships like these. Want to talk more? Need help getting a program going? Connect with me on LinkedIn if you want to keep this conversation going.

Laura Haffield began her career as a social worker in public child welfare. She earned a master’s in social work from University of Wisconsin–Madison as a Title IV-E Public Child Welfare Trainee. As director of advocacy, she draws on this experience to be the bridge between Northwoods’ internal and external audiences. She ensures the social worker is the most important person in every decision, from what we build, to how we implement, to how we support our partners along the way.

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