Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

October 27, 2016

Making Pitt Work

The School of Social Work staffers at the Pennsylvania Child Welfare Resource Center in Mechanicsburg are the University’s most far-flung employees. They help train child welfare workers in every county in the state and make sure those agencies are working as best they can for children.

The state began funding the center in 1992 when it was based at Shippensburg University; in 2001, the center moved to Pitt. The 90 center staff members provide direct services to about 5,000 child welfare workers in all 67 Pennsylvania counties: training caseworkers, supervisors, managers and administrators; revamping the way county agencies are run; providing online courses concerning child-welfare rule changes; and even running an annual weeklong retreat at Pitt-Johnstown for foster youth transitioning to adult independence.

Jennifer Caruso

Jennifer Caruso

Jennifer A. Caruso is one of 14 practice improvement specialists with the center; she has a territory that covers Beaver, Washington, Westmoreland, Cameron and Elk counties.

Her daily duties depend on the needs of each agency: from a day’s training session to a years-long retooling project. The latter may involve several visits per month, working with agency staff to improve their organizational effectiveness, climate, communications or programming.

Sometimes she works with another practice improvement specialist on-site at a county agency; other times she teams with center researchers to interpret surveys they’ve taken of agency needs or worker performance. She collaborates with the center’s curriculum department to develop instructional materials for agency workers.
Other staffers at the center manage statewide child welfare improvement projects or handle the center’s operations, including its administrative, fiscal and tech needs.

Caruso spends several days each month at the center’s Mechanicsburg headquarters, 8 miles west of Harrisburg. When she visits agencies in her five focal counties, she helps them gather data on staff members’ recent work and on case outcomes. She aids agency staff in reviewing state expectations and individual staff performance — “What do we need to do differently? What is getting in the way?” she says — which involves identifying not only gaps in agency service but root causes of any problems.

“I’m the one up at the front of the room, asking the big questions: How are we going to measure success?” she says of her agency visits. “I help them define what success will look like: What do they have that already works and what do the challenges look like? “I’ve helped a couple of agencies completely revamp their structure,” she explains.

Every time a child in the foster care system has a change in caseworkers, she notes, their chances of reunification with their birth families “dramatically drops.” Since reuniting families is the state’s goal for all of its county agencies, Caruso’s work isn’t just aimed at making improvements for their own sake. She is working toward the same state goal of reuniting kids and parents. Her mission, she says, is “how to make sure we’re keeping the family in mind and the child in mind” during each agency’s operations.

“My job is to be the connection between all of those groups within the agency” — different parts of each child welfare agency that may not communicate well enough — “making sure we are following through with all the commitments that are being made.”

The state child welfare system has seen many new laws implemented since 2015, and Caruso works with her assigned counties to help put them in place — figuring out what resources are needed and who is responsible for making the changes. Her work also may involve pulling in other groups and officials who need to help an agency improve its services, such as a county’s office of behavioral health, its bureau of drug and alcohol services, the county manager or quality assurance workers.


As Helen Cahalane, principal investigator of child welfare education and research programs in the School of Social Work, told Congress this summer during a hearing on the child welfare workforce, the Pitt center delivered nearly 2,000 days of in-person training in 14 spots around Pennsylvania and conducted 27 different online training sessions, with more than 4,000 child welfare professionals completing an average of five online courses last year. The center also has provided courses in child abuse recognition and reporting to almost a million people throughout the commonwealth since November 2014.

The center teams with Pitt’s social work school, and the school’s counterparts at 15 other universities in Pennsylvania, to offer an undergraduate program in child welfare education, aimed at bringing new child welfare workers into the field, and a graduate program, child welfare education for leadership, to improve the skills of current professionals in the field.

Center director Michael Byers says Pitt’s School of Social Work is well-positioned to lead the statewide improvement of child welfare agency workers; he calls the center’s operations “an unique opportunity to apply a comprehensive approach to strengthen Pennsylvania’s child welfare system.” Some center employees work inside the social work school and center staff members participate in Pittsburgh campus programs, such as the school’s Center on Race and Social Problems’ summer institute on race and child welfare.

Adds Byers, “The school’s faculty advance our work and inform the direction of research.” Caruso says she still feels a part of Pitt, no matter how far she travels for her job: “I have access to many resources at the University. I attend HR seminars and speakers’ series.”


In Beaver County this fall, Caruso is helping the county child welfare agency improve the “onboarding” of new employees. She calls onboarding “orientation on steroids.” More than merely explaining to new workers what the county’s child welfare agency does, “it’s much more about how things are done and why they are done,” she says.

Caruso also is leading a review of Beaver County services, begun in 2012. She and agency workers have selected individual cases to review, looking at the involvement of the parents, foster parents, courts, service providers and others in each case to develop a success rating and improve similar case outcomes in the future. She helped agency staff discover, for instance, that they needed to concentrate on getting fathers who are primary caregivers to do a better job of involving children’s mothers in their care.

Caruso has also worked with the Beaver County agency on broader issues: “They really wanted to increase effective communication between all team members,” she says.

“They really wanted to feel supported by all staff members. They also wanted staff to have the opportunities to learn and grow” for promotions.

Beaver County’s latest self-assessment shows marked improvement in the agency’s services.

“That was what was really exciting to me,” Caruso says. “We saw progress in a lot of the areas that we worked on.”

Agencies don’t always change easily, she reports. “When it’s your day-to-day work, sometimes you’re wedded to a particular idea. My job is to challenge that. My role is to think critically and challenge them to move forward.”

Caruso may connect one county’s agency staff to their counterparts in another county, where she knows the latter agency has tried a new strategy that might work elsewhere. She also may provide research on an issue the county is about to face.

Her assistance is most effective, she says, when she is “involving people from all over the agency and they are volunteering for roles.” An administrative assistant in Beaver County, for instance, collected data about their work while that staffer’s supervisor turned the data into graphs for a presentation. Such teamwork makes agency workers feel the effort to change originates from within their own organization.

“My role was to come back to them and take them through the data … and see what is working and take those strategies and apply them to something else,” Caruso says.

“I have good ongoing relationship with lots of different people in the agencies,” she adds. “You are always going to have naysayers. The power of this work is, they’re gathering the data, and they’re bringing it back, and they’re able to say, wow, this really did work. They are being asked what really needs to happen to bring about the change leadership wants to see.”


—Marty Levine 

Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 5

Leave a Reply