Help Wanted: Child Welfare Heroes

05/28/2010 04:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This month, I had the honor of delivering the commencement address at the graduation ceremony for the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois campus in Chicago. My commencement message to the College's 220 graduates was devoted to encouraging them to strongly consider pursuing opportunities in an incredibly important field: child welfare practice. Currently, the public child welfare systems and agencies across the country are experiencing a severe workforce crisis.

Given the expanding opportunities for professional social workers in a variety of practice areas, combined with the difficult and demanding challenges of working in child welfare, many social workers are leaving the child welfare field in record numbers and the new generation of college graduates are showing little interest in child welfare practice. In fact, only 10 percent of the graduates with degrees in social work go into the field. Furthermore, less than 40 percent of child welfare services are provided by staff with bachelor's or master's degrees in social work.

Child welfare social workers, like many others who work with our nation's children such as teachers and child care workers, are true heroes. Child welfare is considered to be one of the most challenging and demanding specialty areas of social work. However, they often are unappreciated and undervalued even though child welfare social workers are the heart and soul of the public child welfare system -- serving our nation's children and families in crisis and as advocates for improving America's child welfare system.

The number of children in need of protection and stability is growing at an alarming rate because of maltreatment, substance abuse, mental illness, family violence and other daunting socio-economic family struggles. Regardless of the issue, child welfare social workers are the "first responders" whose interventions involve making critical child safety decisions that can have a profound and long-term impact on the lives of the children and their families.

The children and families that are served in America's child welfare systems have increasingly complex needs that require the support of skilled practitioners. The tremendous shortage of professionally trained child welfare workers has critically hindered the capacity of agencies to provide effective services. Consequently, this child welfare staffing crisis continues to result in high staff turnover, high caseloads and ultimately poor outcomes for children and families.

As a nation, we need to build momentum in responding to the staffing crisis in America's child welfare system. Without a doubt, strengthening the effectiveness of our nation's public child welfare systems depends in large part on having a child welfare workforce that is well-qualified, trained, supervised and supported.

To have a meaningful impact on the child welfare workforce crisis requires a highly visible, collaborative educational response and professional development plan that features financial incentives, a professional education at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and training practices specifically for careers in the child welfare field.

As a step in that direction, a number of university, public agency and private partnerships have already been established throughout the country with the support of training funds, federal grants, and state funds in an effort to increase the number of undergraduate and graduate students majoring in child welfare services. To expand those efforts, more recruitment and retention strategies are needed to significantly curtail the growing scarcity of college educated child welfare professionals. We can start by embracing and supporting child welfare professionals for the community heroes they are.