Based on a review of current economic, political, social, and professional trends, the authors propose recommendations for child welfare education and training. Future partnerships between child welfare agencies and schools of social work will need to incorporate cross-system collaboration, multiculturalism, and family-centered approaches with a broader conceptualization of child well-being.
Perhaps no other field of social work practice is more influenced by its context than child welfare, By child welfare we mean primarily the "constellation of public provisions and professional processes which are created to meet the needs of children who have not 'fared well"' [Laird & Hartman 1985: 5]! Whether in policymaking, program development, or direct practice, those providing services to the most vulnerable families and children do so in an environment of constant change, limited resources, competing and sometimes conflicting expectations from a multitude of stakeholders, and new technologies, many of which are largely untested. Preparing professionals through professional education and training to work in this environment presents its own challenges. Schools of social work, as institutions, have their own obstacles to overcome as they try to both create and manage change in an academic environment that is not always conducive to rapid response.
This article briefly discusses preparation for professional practice in child welfare in the United States today, then delineates some of the current social and political trends and events that are shaping child welfare. Some of these are broad social trends; others are changes and new directions that are professional in nature and that have a direct impact on the provision of child welfare services. The implications of some of these trends for educating social work professionals for child welfare practice are highlighted, and a set of recommendations for curriculum content and approach are suggested.
Preparing for Professional Practice
Professional practice in child welfare is primarily agency based, conducted in public agencies whose legislative mandate is to serve dependent and neglected children, and in private, nonprofit agencies providing contracted services to these children and their families. Social workers in these agencies are professionally trained and provide services in programs that range from child protection to out-of-home care, from adoption to adolescent support. They may work at any level in the agency, from director to supervisor to direct service provider. Other staff in these agencies, even those whose title is also "social worker," may have no professional training in social work. It is generally agreed, however, that formal education in social work is the best preparation for child welfare practice, with the B.S.W being the first level of professional education, followed by the M.S.W for advanced practice levels [Liederman 1995]. Child welfare staff with social work training perceive themselves as better prepared than their colleagues who lack such training in a number of knowledge and skill areas in child welfare [Leiberman et al. 1989]; they also provide higher quality services [Olsen & Holmes 19821.
Schools of social work vary widely in their curriculum approaches to preparing professionals. Some offer specialties in fields of practice such as child welfare. Others specialize in preparing professionals with management, community, or clinical skills. The curriculum in most schools offering a master's of social work includes some content on child welfare, given its prominence as a field of practice, although the organization of this content is varied.' Regardless of an individual school's choice of curriculum approach, every accredited program must include curriculum content (in both the classroom and field education) in core areas such as human behavior and the social environment, research, diversity and work with special populations, and values and ethics. …