Thinking about a career in child welfare? Social work alumni separate fact from fiction
The VCU School of Social Work has been a leader in developing future social workers who go on to work in Department of Social Services settings, and part of that leadership has included taking a critical look at areas where the public welfare system needs to evolve – and also where the school’s educational practices and continuing education supports can be reshaped.
As one of four Child Welfare Stipend Programs in the commonwealth, the school has graduated more than 40 students in four years who have gone on to careers in DSS as part of a work payback requirement. In addition, the school has served as a resource for alumni and other working professionals to explore important topics such as systemic racism, disproportionality and equity in child welfare; and best foster care practices for engaging youth who identify as LGBTQ+.
“I think it is important to take ownership of our history, especially the times when we did not operate from a family-centered, strengths-based, engagement-first focus,” says Beth Hall (M.S.W.’19/SW), who has worked with Fairfax County as a social services specialist and now as a behavioral health clinician in residence.
“Child welfare is a relatively new and ever-evolving field; we have made mistakes in the past and will likely continue to do so as we learn new best practices, and it is our responsibility to take accountability for those mistakes.”
The school is learning how to live into its commitment to social and racial justice. This collective accountability between the school and constituents is laying the foundation for students focusing their education in the area of child welfare social work, acknowledging the clear history of systemic racism and other social injustices in this country and in its child-serving systems.
We want to connect with graduates of the Title IV-E Child Welfare Stipend Program at VCU! If you are a CWSP alum, please fill out this form.
CWSP’s VCU LEGACY
Learn more about the program’s history and rebirth in the School of Social Work.
MARCH 2 APPLICATION DEADLINE
View the eligibility details and application for incoming M.S.W. students and current B.S.W. students for the 2022-23 year.
“Emerging child welfare practitioners have the opportunity to write a new story of social and racial justice in their reflective practice, professional development, work with families and policy advocacy; there is crucial work to be done as we pursue safety, permanent connections and well-being for all children and their families,” says Naomi Reddish, M.S.W., the CWSP coordinator and also an alum of the program.
If you’re considering a career in child welfare, check out the perspectives of four School of Social Work graduates who know the job firsthand.
Dispelling myths about social workers
Despite popular misconceptions and stereotypes about removing children, family unification is paramount for social workers in child welfare, and the value of keeping families together and providing stability for children has a broader societal impact.
Danika Briggs, (M.S.W.’03/SW), assistant director for family services with the Chesterfield-Colonial Heights Department of Social Services: “DSS becomes involved after we receive a valid allegation of abuse or neglect. Most referrals come from mandated reporters like school staff. Unlike popular culture portrays, only a very small percentage of our cases result in removals. We believe that children should be raised in their families when this can safely be done, and we help connect them to services to make this possible. When this is not possible, we do extensive family finding to identify other relatives or natural supports who could provide care as a diversion to foster care. …
“When children are removed from their families, they experience another trauma. They’d likely experienced a number of other traumas prior to that. We know that with each additional adverse experience children have, they are at increased likelihood for poorer health outcomes and engaging in high-risk behaviors as adults. We also know that a number of youth age out of the foster care system without establishing permanency. These youth are also at higher risk for not achieving a high school diploma, experiencing substance abuse and/or mental health issues, homelessness, or engaging in criminal activity.”
April Watson, (M.S.W.’08/SW), family services supervisor, city of Lynchburg DSS: “Sometimes the misconception is that DSS will show up at someone’s door and take their children away – we’ve certainly all seen those situations play out on TV and in movies. I imagine that most social workers cringe every single time they see these portrayals.
“One of the things I appreciated about the CWSP was the emphasis placed on working with and engaging families and the opportunities I received in my field placements watching other social workers practice this piece.”
Hall: “I always tell families that my number one priority is protecting the safety and well-being of children, which involves strengthening families. From a system-wide level, I hope that the emphasis on engagement as the foundation of child welfare practice will help dispel myths over time about our intentions with families.”
Advice from CWSP graduates
Shentel Meadows (B.S.W.’21/SW): “I pursued social work because I have a passion for providing children with safety and stability. I like being a voice for children as well as an ear. Children need to know that they are heard and someone cares. The social work program prepares you for practice in different aspects of social agencies. The CWSP specializes in preparing social workers to engage with families and support children. …
“When considering the field of social work, it’s important to note why you’re doing it. That passion and awareness of why you chose this field is what will keep you going. Having self-care techniques and coping mechanisms in place can be beneficial.”
Hall: “From my perspective, a passion for lifelong learning is essential because you will constantly face new experiences and need to stay on top of ever-evolving research/best practices. Flexibility, organization, and work ethic are also critical traits. To do this work well, you need to push yourself to get better every day. You also need to be able to shift priorities quickly and still meet your deadlines. …
“Take every opportunity to go outside your comfort zone to get as much as experience as possible and improve your tolerance for uncertainty and stress. This work is inherently unpredictable and challenging, which means the best way to prepare for it is to learn how to manage yourself in those situations.
Watson: “A few critical components when working in child welfare are empathy, prioritization, engagement, listening skills, time management, self-awareness, follow-through and the ability to be open-minded. In the beginning of any social worker’s career in child welfare, the desire is to help, and we often want to be able to answer questions for those we serve. When you do not know the answer, it is always okay to say that, but then follow back up in a timely manner. The best way to forge a relationship with a family that may not trust the system, or is afraid, is to follow-through with everything we say we will do. …
“I would encourage CWSP students to take initiative in their field placements and maximize their exposure to the many components of child welfare. Look for new responsibilities, seek out experiences, and ask lots of questions. Familiarize yourself with the continuum of foster care from the moment a complaint is received in intake to emergency removals, prevention cases, foster care, court hearings, reunification and termination.”
Briggs: “Child welfare staff have to be adaptable and flexible. You may plan to approach a family’s situation one way, get new information and have to quickly change course. You also have to have good engagement skills. In order for families to trust you, you have to be empathic and authentically communicate in a way that lets them know you care about their well-being. You also have to have good assessment skills. Things may not always be as they initially appear, so you must always remain curious.
“You have to be assertive. Many times you will have to share information that families may not want to hear. There may also be other professionals who may not agree with decisions you make, so conflict resolution skills are key. Most of all you have to possess good self-awareness. If we don’t believe families can be successful and change, we will not engage them in a way that helps them to do so. We have to be mindful of our own biases that may impact our work. This is why regular supervision is so important.”