The Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) is the principle state agency tasked with helping Oregonians achieve well-being and independence. Particularly, those Oregonians who are least able to help themselves: children, the elderly, and people with special needs. This involves a continuous stream of well-trained workers and managers, the ability to connect multiple agencies, groups and people, and information about whether practices in use are working. Given the challenges DHS faced in tackling this task, in 1994 they partnered with Portland State University to create the Child Welfare Partnership, designed to train DHS employees, educate future workers, and conduct research central to the needs of children’s services. Today, the Child Welfare Partnership is the foundation of the Center for Improvement of Child and Family Services here at Portland State.
Based in the School of Social Work and funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Human Services, the Center integrates research, education and training to advance the delivery of services to children and families here in Oregon and across the U.S. The center provides the power to convene professionals, scholars, parents and children in conversation, the capacity to conduct research in various partnerships, the ability to offer research-based training and education for those working in child welfare, and the ability to connect classroom education to real-world job experience, effectively producing skilled workers and leaders, while encouraging best and promising practices, serving citizens and promoting fairness, equity, and cultural responsiveness.
“What we do,” Dr. Katharine Cahn, the Center’s Executive Director said, “is weave research, training, education and systems integration and change together to help the child welfare system work better.”
Within the Center, that weave might best be represented by the Child Welfare Partnership, which brings child welfare experts working in the field together with experts at PSU to strengthen and improve the child welfare system. The CWP’s Salem Training Unit provides an extensive training curriculum for entering and advanced child welfare workers and caregivers. The CWP’s Education program offers financial support, field education, and coursework for students committed to careers in public child welfare. The research component of the CWP provides federally-required evaluation support for the Partnership.
While the Child Welfare Program is at the core of the Center for Improvement of Child and Family Services, the Center has developed or helped develop several of other programs that wrap around and support the CWP. The System of Care Institute works with communities to provide customized plans for training, coaching, mentoring, and distance instruction among other activities. The Leadership Academy for Middle Managers (LAMM) is a national leadership development academy for middle-managers in public, tribal, and privatized child welfare systems. The development, evaluation and success of these programs depend, in part, on the Center’s Research & Evaluation group.
Through the efforts of the many programs operating out of the Center for Improvement and Child Family Services, the Center is working to change for the better the ways Child Welfare providers serve children and their families.
“Our theory of change,” Cahn said, “is that entrepreneurial, visionary, data-driven and culturally responsive leadership will make a difference in child welfare services. We help make that difference by providing training, coaching, consultation, and some intervention model development for tribal, county and state child welfare workers that promotes best practices in welfare systems.
“Since the Child Welfare Partnership became the Center in 2005, we have grown the Partnership’s mission, but we are still driven by the same core beliefs: we work with people who work with families. We use research to make systems improvements and change happen. We help get kids to feel like somebody cares; that’s what we’re putting into the system.”
In the 18 years since the Oregon Department of Human Services partnered with PSU, university, state, and federal resources have come together to help young Oregonians achieve wellbeing and independence, to improve child welfare services, to help children succeeded when they enter school, and to be there for them when they need help. The Center for Improvement of Child and Family Services has encouraged collaboration, leadership and systems change. They’ve worked to show the importance of honoring the child, parent and welfare worker, and they’ve helped workers understand the importance of culturally respectful, responsive, and equitable systems.
“We care deeply about the problems we’re trying to solve,” Cahn said. “That is why we work in and on the child welfare system. We want to see kids nurtured and develop in ways they only can if someone cares.”