There has been some debate over the advantages of child welfare workers having a social work degree; this debate is a heated one and has been going on for decades. Some educators, researchers, and practitioners do not agree on whether a social work degree, either the MSW or BSW, is necessarily the most suitable or the only degree that prepares students best for child welfare work (Dickinson, 2006; Ellett, 2006; Holosko, 2006; Hughes & Baird, 2006). However, all are unanimous that children and families should receive competent and responsible professional services and that child welfare workers need to be trained to provide those.
The discourse on the knowledge, skills, and values needed for competent child welfare practice began partly as a result of federal legislation. The Child Welfare and Adoption Assistance Act of 1980 made federal funding available for training on child welfare and many university-agency partnerships were formed to develop and deliver specialized in-service and professional training in child welfare. Later, the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 marked a shift in the focus of federal legislation.
From family preservation and support, public agencies had to move to services and practices that assured the safety of children, their placement in stable and permanent homes and their well-being. In 2000, the Child and Family Services Review (CFSR) process was initiated by the Administration for Children and Families as an attempt to standardize the evaluation of state child welfare programs in the three goals – safety, permanency, and child and family well-being – that the ASFA outlined.
Efforts to improve the quality of services and deal with child welfare workforce issues have been influenced not only by federal policy but also by public opinion. In the past two decades, media reports on the deaths of children in the custody of states have drawn the attention of the general public, who question the quality of the child welfare workforce. These incidents and other factors have led to class action litigation as a tool to reform public child welfare systems and bring about institutional changes that ultimately support better outcomes for children and families. In many instances, public child welfare agencies have been court ordered to reform their structures and implement policies and procedures that specifically addressed the minimum qualifications and training of caseworkers (Children’s Rights & National Center for Youth Law, 2007).
The debate about what knowledge, skills, and values are necessary for child welfare work has been informed by federal laws, professional standards, and a number of class action suits. Additionally, research and subsequent development of best practice guides have informed the field. Research has also found that establishing university-child welfare agency partnerships that offer educational programs to prepare social work students for work in public child welfare agencies is a key response for dealing with the child welfare workforce issues (GAO, 2003; Zlotnik & Cornelius, 2000). The research on agency-university partnerships concludes that while there are many challenges in establishing and maintaining those partnerships, successful collaborations are beneficial to the child welfare agencies and the populations served by them (Rheaume, 2007 in Collins, Amodeo, & Clay; Pierce, 2003).
Competency-Based Education and Child Welfare
From its beginnings, social work education has been concerned with the specific knowledge and skills students need for practice. The values of the profession are also seen as an indispensable part of social work education. The formulation of child welfare competencies, defined most commonly as the knowledge, skills, and values needed, has been a collaborative effort of both academics and practitioners. Bernotavicz (1994) points out that a number of states are using competency-based training to prepare their workers for direct practice, in order to bridge the gap between professional education and practice.
Research has established that universities and schools of social work in particular, can play an important role in designing curricula that will assure the professional training of current and prospective child welfare workers. Hodge (2007) provides a comprehensive discussion of the theoretical influence on competency-based education. He points out that the main influences came from behavior psychology and systems theory. Some of the contributions of behavior psychology to CBE include emphasis on expressing competencies in behavioral terms, the notion of “mastery learning,” assessment based on observable behaviors of the learner, as well as the content of training, also known as criterion-referenced assessment. System theory influenced CBE in that it emphasizes that the training design (sub-system) should meet the systemic needs of the industry (parent system).
One of the concepts introduced in the previous paragraph and central to understanding the learning process in CBE is “mastery learning.” In 1963 John B. Carroll introduced a model of mastery learning that looks at factors that influence the learning process. Those factors were either internal to the learner, including aptitude, ability to understand instruction, perseverance, and external such as quality of instruction and time allowed for learning (Carroll, 1989). Later on, Bloom (1968) expanded on this model and explained that both teachers and students needed to know what the learning objectives are and that these needed to be assessed continually to provide feedback on the progress toward mastery.
Another key characteristic of CBE is the importance of identifying and expressing learning objectives or “competencies,” or what the learner is expected to know and be able to do after they have completed a certain course of education. Although Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives is better known, it is based on Ralph Tyler’s Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction (Tyler, 1949). Tyler first talked about the changes that learning was expected to produce in the behaviors of students. In his taxonomy of educational objectives, Bloom distinguished between cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains that correspond to the knowledge, skills, and values (or attitude) that constitute the concept of competency.
Competency-based education theory also provides insights on the construction of competencies. Task analysis is seen as one possible way to define competencies. Breaking down a job into tasks can be done through either direct observation of the task or through interviews with experts who can identify both desirable and ineffective behaviors (Hodge, 2007).
Competency-Based Education and Social Work Education
Although quality education has always been on the agenda of social work educators, notably through the Council on Social Work’s Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS), it was only in the last couple of years that the competency-based model was reintroduced. In 2008 the Council on Social Work
Education introduced a revised version of the EPAS that “supports academic excellence by establishing thresholds for professional competence.” (CSWE, 2008, p. 1). The new standards require programs to show how the implicit and explicit curricula support the competencies and resulting practice behaviors students at the baccalaureate and masters levels are expected to have. The 2008 EPAS introduce 10 core competencies for the baccalaureate level programs and contain “a description of characteristic knowledge, values, skills, and the resulting practice behaviors that may be used to operationalize the curriculum and assessment methods” (CSWE, 2008, p. 3).
Development of Child Welfare Competencies
The development of competencies for child welfare has been a complex process that required collaboration among child welfare specialists, social work educators and practitioners, and public service agencies. To date there is no single set of competencies that is commonly recognized as standard or exhaustive. The leaders in the field of child welfare competency development in the last decades have been the CalSWEC and IHS.
Child welfare competencies can be derived from analyses of the jobs and specific tasks that child welfare workers have, drawing on the experience of child welfare professionals, research and “best practice.” In recent years, these competencies have been developed as a result of collaborations between schools of social work and public service agencies. The intent behind their development was to use the competencies in both university-based programs and agency trainings. The methods through which competencies have been identified include evaluating university programs using Title IV-E funds and preparing students for careers in child welfare, assessing in-service training needs of child welfare agency workers, and developing training curricula. In addition, there have been a small number of studies that have utilized job analyses by looking at the types of responsibilities BSW and MSW child welfare workers actually have.
Child welfare work is complex and demanding, and to be effective workers need specialized knowledge, abilities, and values that help them serve children and families. The assertion that it takes a long time or at least one year for child welfare workers to feel comfortable on the job, has been mostly anecdotal and not supported by evidence. The social work knowledge base is that the CSW BSW program has enough content to prepare child welfare workers on what was considered most important for child welfare work – values and engaging skills with implications for social work education as well. The new EPAS require that BSW programs address competencies and “practice behaviors,” and the entry-level child welfare competencies discussed here translate well into the more general practice behaviors of the most recent accreditation standards. Further on, because accreditation standards apply to programs nationwide and BSW programs are more alike than different, the findings regarding the content that prepares for each competency can be generalized to other accredited programs as well. Finally, the study demonstrates that partnerships between a school of social work and a public child welfare agency can be beneficial for both parties, and that fostering these partnerships is a sign of the commitment of social work to child welfare and serving the country’s most vulnerable children and families.