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Child welfare training program marks 10 years, expands access

May 12, 2010 By Jenny Price

Kira Gengler and Megan Jeidy will both get their master’s degrees in social work on Sunday, May 16, but they already have something their fellow graduates seek: jobs.

The two women are part of the 10th class of students to graduate from UW–Madison’s public child welfare training program, which covers the cost of a master’s degree for social work students who commit to working in Wisconsin’s public child welfare system for one or two years. The program uses federal funds distributed by the state Department of Children and Families.

“(The program) helps students understand the complexity of the work, the realities of what they’re going to face as far as the social problems, and situations they’re going to be in,” says Erik Pritzl, director of the Columbia County Department of Health & Human Services.

Beginning this fall, the training program will admit both part-time master’s students and students working toward a bachelor’s of social work in addition to full-time master’s students. The part-time master’s training program will also be available at UW-Eau Claire, where the UW–Madison School of Social Work has offered a part-time option for earning a master’s degree since last fall.

“What we’ve found so far is that people who are applying for the (part-time option) are tending to be exactly what we thought: people who are working in the field, but want to come back and get their master’s,” says Susan Michaud, a social work lecturer and director of the training program.

Students in the child welfare training program go through specialized coursework and internships to prepare them for work in the field. The goal is to help graduates defeat a troubling trend; national studies show child welfare workers are most likely to leave the field within the first two years, often because they are inadequately prepared for what they will experience on the job.

The eight master’s students graduating this spring join the program’s 98 alumni; more than two-thirds of them still work in public child welfare in 24 counties around the state and the Ho-Chunk and Oneida nations.

Gengler entered the training program after completing her first year of master’s coursework, when an internship at a private organization involved in child welfare issues sparked her interest. During her year in the training program, she interned at Green County’s Department of Human Services, where she shadowed a caseworker and managed four cases on her own.

Gengler recently accepted a job offer to work for La Crosse County. “I think my participation in this program really increased my chances,” she says.

In a time of tight budgets, the training the students receive is increasingly valuable, says William Orth, director of the Sauk County Department of Human Services.

“Not only is the coursework targeted, the pre-service requirements we have to have staff do are accomplished during the (training) program. So somebody who comes out of that program is much more able to be hired and start work more quickly without a lot of extra time in orientation and training than someone who hasn’t come through that program,” Orth says. “The sooner we can start somebody the better off we are.”

Jeidy was working as a caseworker in Green County after earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology and human services from Edgewood College, but she knew she wanted to return to school for her master’s degree. Her plans came into focus once she discovered her passion for child welfare on the job and saw firsthand the preparation of co-workers who had gone through the training program.

Jeidy said the program “really gave me the luxury to sit back and really dedicate myself to my education and then allowed me the ability to look back on my old practice and figure out how I could change it or what things I could have done differently.”

And Jeidy has already begun to work part-time at the Southern Child Welfare Training Partnership in Madison, affiliated with the UW–Madison School of Human Ecology, where she will help develop a foster parent training program for 21 county agencies in southern Wisconsin.