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Reconstructing Michigan’s Child Welfare System

We believe the concepts of “cultural humility” and “intersectionality” should be incorporated in child welfare worker training and practice. Child welfare cultural competence training has improved as it has developed, and our contribution offers additional consideration. We agree with the perspective in child welfare that reinforces placing an emphasis on culture in all aspects of child welfare work. Institutionalizing training that draws attention to cultural difference means that the child welfare system fully appreciates the relationship between culture, parenting, and family well-being. A cultural humility perspective is a movement away from a perspective that cultural beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are more or less fixed, and draws attention to the fact that an appreciation of culture is beyond what can be accomplished by cultural competence alone. It is a call to recognize the uniqueness of each individual involved in delivering child welfare services. It defines a place for the children and families, themselves, to become an integral part of the service delivery process with recognition of their unique and individual definitions of self and place in society. It is furthermore a call for workers to lend expertise about culture to the service recipients who are in the best position to define for themselves the meaning of their culture and cultural experiences. --Excerpt from cultural humility manuscript Training child welfare workers from a cultural humility perspective by Robert M. Ortega, PhD, and Kathleen Coulborn Faller, PhD.

Laying a Foundation

A group of School of Social Work faculty and graduate students, spearheaded by Marion Elizabeth Blue Professor of Social Work Kathleen Coulborn Faller and Associate Professor Robert Ortega, have been engaged in addressing child welfare workforce issues and in developing strategies to improve the recruitment, training, and retention of child welfare professionals in the state of Michigan. These strategies involve training child welfare employees and conducting research on Michigan’s child welfare workforce.

In addition, as one of eight schools of social work involved in a five-year collaborative agreement with the U.S. Children’s Bureau (Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, Department of Health and Human Services), the University of Michigan is a partner in the new National Child Welfare Workforce Institute to develop supervisor and mid-level manager leadership in the child welfare system. Faller and Ortega will work with colleagues at the University at Albany’s School of Social Welfare and with the U-M School of Social Work’s national partners, including the National Indian Child Welfare Association; the Child Welfare League of America; the Universities of North Carolina, Denver, Southern Maine, and Iowa; Michigan State University; and Fordham University.

The funding comes as many states attempt to improve a system that has struggled to recruit and retain enough well-trained social workers to handle cases. The lack of sufficient numbers of workers, their need for specialized training, and the failure of workers to apply agency policies have been related to several child deaths and injuries in recent years. As Ortega points out, “It’s a difficult job with life-altering consequences and an unprecedented need for continuous monitoring and care. A stable workforce is essential in child welfare.”

As part of the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute, the University of Michigan will receive $300,000 for two major efforts. Faculty will develop a national curriculum for child welfare supervisors and midmanagers that will represent a paradigm shift in how to handle cultural differences, which Faller and Ortega have previously taught in Michigan, Maine, California, and Washington, D.C. This cultural humility training program teaches social workers, who are often White, female, and from middle-class backgrounds, to work more effectively with families from diverse backgrounds.

Faller reflected on discussions in the literature that point out how decisions about racially and ethnically diverse families are too often based on negative characterizations or labels by workers and supervisors in the child welfare system. Those labels tend to follow them through their interactions with new workers and ultimately negatively affect the course of their cases. Corollary to the issue of training is the system’s historic inability to retain workers of color.

Findings in the U-M School of Social Work’s longitudinal study of Michigan’s child welfare workers suggest that newly hired African American workers are less likely than White workers to say they plan to stay employed as child welfare workers for two to five years and more likely to leave child welfare employment than White workers. These findings coincide with Associate Professor Leslie Hollingsworth’s research involving private and public agency foster care workers (see page 6) and her findings of significant differences between the two settings in worker compensation, a factor that can affect worker retention and ultimately permanency outcomes. Findings from these two studies strengthen the importance of further research into the influence of foster care workers’ attitudes toward their work on retention and ultimately on child and family outcomes.

Improvement in service to racially and ethnically diverse populations in Michigan’s child welfare system hinges on retaining Department of Human Services (DHS) workers of color and on the success of institutionally required training in cultural competencies for all social workers, particularly those workers with different cultural backgrounds than the very families they serve. “Our cultural humility training is a way of approaching people different from yourself, honoring their culture, and understanding how they see the world,” Faller says. Evaluations of the cultural humility training delivered to 476 staff in Michigan have been positive; workers and supervisors rate it as very helpful in day-to-day challenges to deliver culturally responsive services.

Faller adds that Ortega will take the lead in the online training for supervisors and mid-level managers, supported by the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute. One of the main goals of the cultural humility training is to encourage culturally sensitive service to families before removing the children from their homes. This is particularly crucial for populations of color, whose children are more likely to be removed from the home than White children with the same problems and maltreatment history.

Research Results Demand Improvement to the System

With a $1 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Faller, Ortega, and their research team recently completed a longitudinal study of 651 new child welfare workers and telephone interviews of 174 “leavers” or departed child welfare workers. As part of the U-M SSW Recruitment and Retention (R&R) Project, researchers led by Faller and Ortega conducted exit interviews with the former child welfare workers to uncover factors that might have led to their leaving. The results indicated that organizational and climate factors presented the biggest challenges for maintaining a supportive work environment, factors that are crucial for worker retention. Several additional factors surfaced; among them were feeling they could not help children and families, high caseloads, heavy workloads, poor supervision, and negative experiences in court.

With numerous barriers and obstacles to adequate care, including lack of resources and oversight, the increasingly complex family situations become difficult to manage effectively. As Ortega suggests, they far too  often require interagency collaboration, which can lead to unclear trajectories for successfully guiding these families through intensely difficult times.

An end product of the R&R Project is four web-based training modules: Cultural Humility, Legal Ethics, Advanced Training in the Indian Child Welfare Act, and Supervising for Worker Retention. In an effort to improve both service delivery and retention of workers, Faller and Ortega have worked with their colleagues Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Professor of Social Work John Tropman and Professor Frank Vandervort of the U-M Law School in the development of these training modules.

“The School has a long history of research in child welfare,” Ortega points out, “and these recent grants really energize those faculty invested in research focused on preserving the safety, security, and well-being of children, especially the overwhelming number of children from diverse cultural backgrounds.” However, he notes the importance of offering training that has a direct impact on the worker’s ability to do his or her job and do it more effectively.

Lawsuits Lead to Collaboration

The work of Faller, Ortega, and their colleagues is taking on added significance in the context of the recent Michigan Children’s Rights Lawsuit, a class action lawsuit brought against the State of Michigan by Children’s Rights. Children’s Rights is a national advocacy group working to reform child welfare systems around the country on behalf of the over 550,000 abused and neglected children currently in out-of-home care and another 100,000 who depend on Children’s Rights for protection and care. The claim against the child welfare system in Michigan specifically cited the maltreatment or neglect of foster children while in state custody, a lack of basic physical and mental health services for foster children, excessive lengths of stay in state custody, and frequent moves among multiple placements.

On February 2 the School of Social Work hosted a collaboratory on the Children’s Rights Lawsuit. The collaboratory featured a discussion of the lawsuit as it affects Michigan’s foster care children currently numbering over 17,000. Presenters were Kathryne O’Grady, JD, Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) deputy director for children’s services; Sarah Bartosz, JD, Children’s Rights staff attorney; Professors Donald Duquette and Vivek Sankaran of the University of Michigan Law School; and Professor Faller from the School of Social Work. Together they explored how these various constituencies might reasonably work together to achieve the mandates set forth by the lawsuit settlement. The goal of the lawsuit and all involved is to overhaul the nation’s seventh largest foster care system by providing federal oversight and implementing clear standards of accountability.

As Children’s Rights attorney Sarah Bartosz pointed out, rarely does such a respectful collaboration take place between plaintiff and defendant. In the case of the Children’s Rights Lawsuit, both sides share the same ultimate vision of improving foster care in Michigan, and as summary speaker Professor Sankaran said, “The lawsuit will bring resources that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.” However, he pointed out, having “more money and resources doesn’t necessarily mean a better outcome,” but there is a strong need for a working relationship, which appears to have been forged. Kathryne O’Grady has been working directly with Children’s Rights, showing a willingness to make a positive change despite what, on the surface, would seem to be divisive issues. O’Grady, along with Bartosz, called for another collaboratory in the spring of 2010 to measure progress.

In addition to the goal of reducing the number of children in foster care by fifty percent by the year 2020, the settlement hopes to achieve the following goals: remedy the problem of the severe shortage of foster homes in Michigan, lower the high caseloads and case turnovers for workers for the benefit of both families and staff, better monitor child safety, provide better planning and services to move children out of foster care and into permanent homes, mitigate the gross inadequacies of payments to foster care providers, and cut down on fiscal waste in cases where Michigan failed to regularly collect federal funds, forgoing millions of dollars.

Among the provisions set forth by the lawsuit are compliance with standards for the Child Welfare Final Rules, a newly aligned DHS Children’s Service Administration, the establishment of a centralized maltreatment reporting hotline and a separate unit to investigate maltreatment in placement, and new educational requirements for child welfare workers with emphasis on in-house training, continuing education, and university-based training opportunities. Additionally, DHS will develop a training plan for licensing workers under federal supervision, and caseload size will be cut in half to meet Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) standards. These new provisions are designed to encourage team decision making and concurrent planning for reunification or other permanent plans. DHS hopes to take care of backlogged children and improve independent living by supporting families with adoption subsidies.

Of particular interest to many in the audience was the role that University of Michigan School of Social Work graduates would play in the realigned foster care system managing caseworkers. Donald N. Duquette, JD, clinical professor of law and director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic, pointed out that it is important to “use the U’s,” both for research and planning and in practical field application.

To learn more about the Children’s Rights lawsuit, visit

The School Mobilizes and Takes Action 

The scope of the settlement from the lawsuit, as Faller puts it, “is mind boggling.” Among the changes will be requirements for reduced caseloads, for supervisors to hold MSW degrees, and for caseworkers to hold a BSW. For DHS to handle the “sweeping” nature of the lawsuit, Faller points out that “they’re creating a whole new administrative structure,” with child welfare now its own unit, separate from adults and seniors. These large-scale structural changes make it imperative that the School’s faculty assist and collaborate with DHS and also that the students become equally engaged with the issues. Increased engagement is poised to come from the School’s child welfare-focused curriculum as well as the reinstituted continuing education program (see page 24), which has the partial charge of serving nontraditional students who often come to the table with a social work background and a social context that helps them serve Michigan’s diverse population.

Of utmost importance will be how the School can integrate with the Children’s Rights Settlement and become an important component for reform. Faller says there are a few initial ways the university can help DHS, such as “evaluating courses to dovetail for employment at DHS, providing Title 4-E child welfare training, and pushing for a ninety percent tuition match to make receiving an MSW at renowned institutions more accessible.” 

Now more than ever, with the new stringent degree requirements, the success of Michigan’s child welfare system is contingent upon the success of university training and the professional development of caseworkers. The recent Children’s Rights Lawsuit has expedited much-needed child welfare reform that the School’s faculty was already researching and moving to remedy. As Robert Ortega says, this is a “call to arms” for faculty to get involved and mobilized by the issue of child welfare.

To address the need, the School will deliver a postdegree certificate in child welfare, the curriculum of which is designed around competencies developed by the six schools of social work in the state of Michigan that have MSW programs. Developed by Faller and Ortega, the certificate will focus on enhancing skills around permanency planning in child welfare—skills people really need, such as supervision, caseload management, and comprehensive assessment. It will be open to persons with MSWs and BSWs and also to persons with related social science degrees who are already working in child welfare. To earn the certificate, recipients will complete 45 contact hours within four years. 

Among the new continuing education workshops is “Visitation and Child Welfare Decision Making” taught by Kathleen Faller. This class is designed for Child Protective Service workers and foster care/ adoption workers to teach models for examining parent-child interactions, to teach the use of a cultural humility lens when interpreting parent-child interactions, and to teach participants how to integrate observations about the parent-child relationship with other information in decision making about permanency planning. Another workshop, taught by Robert Ortega, is “Cultural Humility: A Paradigm Shift in How to Work with Diverse Populations.” This course examines concepts of cultural humility, intersectionality, and multiple identities, and it helps participants develop skills that can assist in bridging the cultural divide between workers/supervisors and clients, both children and adults. 

In the past, changes have been slow in coming because of debate over data, and as Ortega says, “When you have poor data and poor ‘countability,’ you have poor accountability.” Now everyone is accountable, and with the pressing matter at hand of keeping families together, “the only way things will change is through greater collaboration between those in charge with those on the ground,” says Ortega. The success of the program is reciprocal. These new trainings are aimed at better serving the entire child welfare community—the workers, the families, and, most of all, the children. Faller and Ortega’s research, coupled with the new mandates set in motion by the lawsuit, has created a demand for a successful, streamlined, and transparent system. And as Faller and Ortega’s work suggests, it relies significantly on a stable, dependable workforce. 

—Timothy Chilcote is web content administrator

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