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September 27, 2007

Mechanicsburg program trains child welfare workers

It’s not widely known beyond the School of Social Work that Pitt has a contingent of about 75 employees in Mechanicsburg, but these staff members who work far beyond the shadow of the Cathedral of Learning play an important role in the education of child welfare workers state-wide.

The Pitt-administered child welfare training program has been a partnership between the University and the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare since 2001, providing training, transfer of learning and technical assistance to county child welfare agencies and their workers in all 67 counties in Pennsylvania.

Although they are 200 miles from the Pittsburgh campus, workers at the Mechanicsburg office feel a strong connection to Pitt.

Jon Rubin, interim director of the child welfare training program, said the Pitt logo on the office building, the letterhead and employee ID tags are among the constant reminders of the Pitt link. “Basically anywhere you go, we’re very much connected to the University in the visual context as much as we can.”

He added that Helen Cahalane, principal investigator for social work’s child welfare education and research programs, as well as her predecessor, Edward Sikes, have encouraged the maintenance of Pitt connections. Faculty member Cahalane travels regularly between Pittsburgh and Mechanicsburg as part of her work as PI.

Cahalane noted the school’s programs can span a child welfare worker’s career. The Mechanicsburg-based program, with its pre-service and in-service training for child welfare workers, makes up one arm of the programs she oversees. The other arm consists of degree education programs.

For example, Cahalane said, a student could obtain a bachelor’s degree in the child welfare education for baccalaureates program, then find a job with a child welfare agency and receive pre-service and in-service training through the child welfare training program. Those working in the child welfare field can continue their education through the child welfare education for leadership graduate program.

The degree programs, administered by Pitt, include students at a variety of public and private colleges and universities across Pennsylvania.

Staff in Mechanicsburg are divided into three divisions. Training and technical support division members concentrate on organizational effectiveness, curriculum development and training delivery as well as evaluation of how training is impacting child welfare workers’ skills. A number of them, most of whom have extensive child welfare agency experience, are based in the field as members of regional teams who work with county children and youth agencies, Cahalane said.

The technology division provides technical assistance, produces videos for the curriculum and operates the program’s web site. Fiscal and operations division employees round out the staff.

The child welfare training program offers about 2,000 training days per year, with a total of about 20,000 people a year receiving some form of training, Cahalane said.

By law, child welfare workers initially must undergo 120 hours of training, then continue with an additional 20 hours each year.

Pitt is responsible for developing the curriculum for the 120-hour “Charting the Course” program as well as additional content that is developed by request or when areas of need are identified — for instance, additional training for caseworkers on special topics such as sexual abuse or substance abuse, Cahalane said.

Curriculum development is constantly in flux as new practice initiatives come forward. Engaging fathers is one such emphasis, as is engaging youth and families, Cahalane said.

Rubin said family engagement is one of the pieces that will be emphasized more in the future to help dispel the notion that child welfare workers simply take children away from their parents. He said the program is working on ways to help give families the power of decision-making in the process.

Cahalane said the program also is expanding into assisting agencies with organizational effectiveness — “Really looking at what happens out within the child welfare agencies and trying to improve function,” she said.

“We can do a lot of work with individuals but unless we’re working with the child welfare system as a whole, we’re not going to achieve the goal of improving services for children and families,” Cahalane said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 40 Issue 3

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