Basic Training

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More than a year after a spate of deaths among children known to Colorado’s child welfare system, the state is creating a child welfare training academy that will be mandatory for all new caseworkers.

Among the questions: What will the academy teach, and will it matter?

By setting up the academy this summer and starting classes in January, Colorado joins other states that began establishing such academies earlier this decade in response to deficiencies found during federal reviews of their systems.

But while policymakers and child welfare advocates have high hopes for the academy, its creation brings to the fore a sobering reality: Research suggests that child welfare training academies have achieved few, if any, measurable results.

Nevertheless, child welfare training experts say it’s better to train workers before they assume responsibility for their caseloads, especially because many are fresh out of college.

“Would you want to have a police officer walking down the street carrying a gun and making decisions about when to use it without having gone through an academy and being trained?” asks Floyd Alwon, an independent consultant who has written extensively about child welfare training.

At the same time, Alwon says, an academy for child welfare workers is no guarantee against foul-ups. “Doctors go through medical school and all kinds of licensing and training, and they still open up the wrong arm or whatever,” he says.

A Sense of Security

The academy – which is a system, not a building – was one of the major recommendations made by a child welfare action committee that Gov. Bill Ritter (D) created after 13 child fatalities in 2007. Reviews of the deaths exposed shortcomings in the child welfare system, particularly in the area of training.

Actually, Colorado has provided training for new child welfare caseworkers for several years, but a lack of resources created a backlog that prevented many workers from being trained until they had been on the job for three to six months – possibly putting kids at risk, officials say.

The academy is expected to serve 400 caseworkers a year. The Colorado Department of Human Services (DHS) says it will be staffed by three full-time workers during its first fiscal year and six full-timers during the second. The training will probably be done under contract by a university school of social work, as it is in several other states. Likely candidates are the University of Denver and the University of Southern Maine, both which provide training for Colorado child welfare workers now.

The academy will be funded with $885,000 from the state in fiscal 2009-10 and $1.6 million in fiscal 2010-11. Officials say the state is eligible to receive a 50 percent federal match for training funds through Title IV-E of the Social Security Act.

In some ways, it seems as though the academy is meant to give child welfare officials an extra sense of security, even if it’s more perceived than real. If the training academy had been in place in 2007, when the 13 children known to the system were killed, “we would have at least been able to say we did everything we could to make sure workers were trained before they get cases,” says Lloyd Malone, director of the child welfare division of Colorado DHS. “So it gives us a sense of confidence.”

The operative word is “sense.” Researchers have attempted to establish a connection between child welfare training and safety, and they keep coming up short.

Doubtful Impact

In a review of literature on child welfare training academies published in May 2007, researchers at the Boston University School of Social Work concluded that many evaluations of child welfare training programs “find little impact, and the interpretation of this is difficult.”

The lack of impact could be due to a “weak study design” or “poor implementation of the training,” the researchers wrote in a report called Review of the Literature on Child Welfare Training: Theory, Practice, and Research.

“It might also be true that there is no effect of the training.”

Child welfare training experts say it’s almost impossible to measure the impact of an academy.

“There’s probably no way – and I have a Ph.D. in research – that you can empirically say the creation of a child welfare training academy directly contributed to any one outcome,” says Theresa Costello, director of the Albuquerque, N.M.-based National Resource Center for Child Protective Services. “But the presence of a training system, just like other systemic factors, is going to make a positive contribution to the success of the system.”

That’s the hope of Colorado State Sen. Linda Newell (D), who sponsored and pushed the bill that created the academy. “I certainly hope that we see a reduction” in fatalities, the senator says.

Newell says the state will try to assess the effectiveness of the academy, but she and other supporters harbor no illusions about the extent to which it can protect children.

“This in and of itself doesn’t solve everything we need to solve,” says Skip Barber, executive director of the Colorado Association of Family & Children’s Agencies and a member of the state’s child welfare action committee. “It’s one piece of the puzzle that, when we put it together, will hopefully improve the system.”

What the Fatal Cases Show

Whether more training would have enabled child welfare workers to prevent any of the deaths depends on the extent to which the workers would have applied their training.

One of the biggest problems that led to the deaths, based on child death reviews examined by Youth Today, was that caseworkers and others in the child welfare system repeatedly miscommunicated and did not detect certain warning signs or risk factors.

Newell, the state senator, noted that some of the fatalities were due to “negligence by county personnel just not knowing what to do, not knowing the signs of what to look for when going into a home, not knowing what to do in a particular case.”

In other cases, workers failed to document certain developments or to close cases, leading to confusion among other workers that may have caused them to miss chances to help children at risk of abuse or neglect.

For example, in the fatality of 4-year-old Rosalia Garcia-Quintana, caseworkers took her father’s word at face value when he claimed he was in Texas at the time he was allegedly observed abusing the girl in Colorado. Consequently, caseworkers never laid eyes on the girl, and that was a violation of state rules.

Rosalia died of neglect 2½ weeks later. Caseworkers failed to examine her surviving siblings and make sure they were safe, which was also a violation of state rules.

Similar negligence and oversights were found in several other fatalities. In some cases, it appears as though caseworkers simply failed to exercise due diligence and common sense.

Nonetheless, Linda Metsger, a former longtime caseworker and supervisor at the Arapahoe County Department of Social Services, says the training academy should help.

“When I started in the field, we didn’t have any training and certainly did the job and I think did it well,” says Metsger, now training and program administrator at the Butler Institute for Families at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, which provides training for caseworkers in Colorado. But the lack of training “made it more difficult because I needed to count on my peers and supervisors to show me everything I know.”

Colorado is still figuring out exactly what to teach at its new academy.

Connie Hayek, director of the National Data Analysis System, a repository of child welfare and related data, says that in order to be effective, child welfare training academies need to be practical and comprehensive, and to be supported by supervisors. The National Data Analysis System is sponsored by the Arlington, Va.-based Child Welfare League of America.

Hayek says academies must cover the things that frontline caseworkers are likely to encounter, such as substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, and the signs of and risk factors for abuse and neglect.

The training academy must deliver its lessons through not only lectures, but also role-playing and examining case studies, Hayek says. “It helps to develop the skills necessary to critically analyze the situation.”