State-of-the-heart Social Work

Wednesday, January 25, 2012
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UNH center boosts training for NH child welfare workers

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Christie Davis ’09G and Professor of Social Work Jerry Marx

Being a social worker at the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth, and Families and Division for Juvenile Justice Services —the DCYF for short—offers challenges even in the best of times.

Your clients number many of New Hampshire’s most vulnerable citizens: more than 10,000 children and youth whose lives have been marred by abuse or neglect. When they, or others close to them, place desperate calls to DCYF, one of the 400 social workers employed by the division ultimately answers the call.

“Not necessarily the easiest job, when you show up at somebody’s door to intervene in their private life. It’s even harder when, on occasion, they say, ‘You’re not coming in’,” muses Christie Davis, who earned a master’s degree in social work from UNH in 2009 and has knocked on many a door in her day. “If you’re meeting a family for the first time, you have to know how to engage them.”

Davis says that learning how to engage at-risk families takes courage, passion, and know-how. “Every case is different” for workers who must quickly assess family “culture,” how a child fits into the culture, how to partner with the family to work with their child, and how to deal with emotional situations.

When budgets are tight and resources strained, it’s even harder to be a front-line social worker. You can’t exactly teach courage and passion, but constantly honing worker “know-how” is directly linked to improved outcomes for families. In 2008, the DCYF was dealing with budget and staff cuts that hampered its ability to provide workers with the professional training they needed to stay current in their field.

So, the division looked to the University of New Hampshire’s social work department as a possible partner. Within months, the department established the Center for Professional Excellence in Child Welfare (CPE), essentially taking over as the primary provider of continuing professional education for DCYF- DJJ workers.

The partnership proved a natural, says Professor of Social Work Jerry Marx, who serves as the University’s campus project director and “relationship manager” with the DCYF. “We have 14 faculty members doing research in child welfare—some of the best in the country,” avers Marx. “In the meantime, the DCYF was looking for a way to deliver high-quality training using distance-learning technologies to make training more accessible to DCYF staff.”

Marx and Davis, who was appointed as the center’s program director, quickly enlisted a network of University offices and institutes to furnish all the required expertise. For starters, the CPE tapped the UNH information and academic technology offices to develop the agency’s first-ever training Web site and establish quality online training modules to supplement live classroom programs. To help with the agency’s professional conference—an event that draws hundreds annually to Manchester—the UNH Institute on Disability (IOD), which sponsors 60 of its own events each year, stepped up to handle logistics.

Gradually, the UNH Carsey Institute, Justiceworks, Cooperative Extension, and many other programs contributed in a hundreds of different ways to supporting the quality and reach of CPE programs.

As a result, says Maggie Bishop, the DCYF director, “The CPE took us to a whole new level. Not the least was staff morale and retention, which suffered before CPE created more flexible training opportunities that wouldn’t interfere with case work.”

Bishop says the agency “benefits enormously” as UNH faculty and students bring cutting-edge research to bear on front-line casework. “There is so much happening nationally that we need to know,” says Bishop. “For example, we understand more about autism every year—its occurrence in the population and impact on families. UNH helps us understand better what these kids are experiencing.”

Just as important, says Bishop, is that UNH “helps workers understand what they are seeing” when they interview families.

Professor Melissa Wells assigned one of her graduate courses on program evaluation to do a literature review of best practices in child welfare training evaluation. Then, the class used the review to create a state-of-art tool for New Hampshire anchored best practices.

Graduate social work students have also completed independent study projects resulting in a seven-module online training series for use beginning in December, 2011, by workers and supervisors.

Professor Sharon Murphy, whose work focuses on domestic violence and intimate partner violence, consults with the agency on developments in her field and has also done a live training session—a real boon to a state agency that lost funding for its domestic violence staff in 2010.

Patrick Shannon, a social work professor at UNH, helped to set up and evaluate a new statewide “practice model” currently being used within DCYF. The model, which lays out consistent practice across the state, has earned New Hampshire a growing national reputation as cutting edge for its inclusion of family and youth voices in designing and evaluating programs.

Tricia Hazlett, a supervisor in the Seacoast DCYF District Office and CPE trainer, says, "We just completed our federal review. Many of the reviewers remarked they'd never seen some of the stuff we're doing. Other states are looking to New Hampshire. Our training initiatives with the CPE helped us achieve this distinction."

As the partnership between UNH and state’s child welfare workers continues to improve worker training, retention, and the state’s reputation for child welfare advocacy, Davis puts her tenure as CPE director in perspective: “I’m proud of the work we’ve accomplished. The center really has made a difference. But I’m also proud of the way our UNH network stepped up to collaborate with us. These partnerships make us much bigger than the sum of our parts.”

Related Links:
Center for Professional Excellence in Child Welfare
UNH Department of Social Work
NH Department of Health and Human Services

Originally published by:

Knowledge for Healthy Living newsletter

Words by Dave Moore, Editorial and Creative Services. Photograph by Jeremy Earl Mayhew, College of Health and Human Services.