There are so many innovative programs popping up within child welfare. Today, Partners for Our Children highlights Children’s Corps, an initiative of Fostering Change for Children based in New York City. Children’s Corps aims to improve vulnerable children’s well-being and chances for success by building a workforce with highly-skilled and dedicated child welfare workers who have the potential to become leaders in the field. Fostering Change for Children holds its Children’s Corps Summer Training Academy at Columbia University School of Social Work, and partners with various organizations to achieve its mission to “help children and families by creating positive solutions to challenges within the child welfare system”.

It’s fall in New York City, but the ice cream trucks in Spanish Harlem don’t seem to know this as they entice children and adults with cold treats to the tune of “Jingle Bells”. Watching the kids, big and small, run down the ice cream truck and then turn around with smiles and already-sticky faces and fingers makes me think of my childhood home. And while such nostalgia brings joyful memories, I also cannot help but to think about the many youth in this country’s child welfare system that might struggle to identify a “home” of their own.

What does “home” mean to you? A stable environment with unconditional love and support, or moving from place to place and with no sense of a permanent future? While both are possibilities for children and youth in foster care, the latter is far too often the reality faced by youth-in-care. The New York City child welfare system continues to improve its practice by introducing innovative approaches, yet children enter foster care everyday due to larger systemic issues which impact families in underserved and underprivileged communities at alarming rates. Poverty and poverty-related challenges, structural inequality, and racially biased decision making are some of the factors that contribute to the disproportionate representation of children of color in child welfare [1]. Battling racism and classism are worthy fights: fights social workers sign up to undertake. While racism, classism, and all the other “-isms” appear to be never-ending wars, there are smaller battles child welfare professionals and organizations can and should win.

One winnable battle is child welfare caseworker retention. Ninety percent of state child welfare agencies report difficulty in recruiting and retaining workers [2]. Exceedingly high numbers of caseloads, poor working conditions, high turnover rates, and a poor public perception of the child welfare system are widely recognized as problems that contribute to the difficulty of attracting high-quality, innovative, and committed staff [3]. Turnover of child welfare caseworkers negatively impacts youth-in-care, families involved in child welfare systems, and the organizations that serve these youth and families. Caseworker retention directly affects a child spending one more holiday away from a permanent home. A Milwaukee study by Flower, McDonald, and Sumski (2005) found that fewer changes in caseworkers increases the chances of permanency exponentially for youth-in-care (i.e. Children with one caseworker achieve permanency in 74.5% of cases. But the more caseworkers involved in a child’s life, the less chance that child has to achieve permanency, ranging from 17.5% for children with two case managers, to the devastatingly low rate of 0.1% for children who had six or seven caseworkers during their time in care).

Fostering Change for Children (FCFC) joined this battle in 2011 by introducing Children’s Corps to New York City. The Children’s Corps program works closely with NYC’s Administration for Children’s Services and its provider agencies and is unique in its three-pronged approach: 1) Selective Recruitment: Bachelor’s and Master’s level graduates are recruited across the U.S. and participate in a rigorous application and interview process; 2) Comprehensive and Innovative Pre-Service Training: Those selected to Children’s Corps participate in a four-week, training academy before entering the workforce with their respective agencies; and 3) Ongoing Support: Children’s Corps supports these frontline workers during their two-year commitment to the program and their agency. They receive support via mentor relationships, monthly gatherings, an online resource community, and the FCFC staff.

After three years of service and growth of the program, both in the number of members and partner agencies, the Children’s Corps retention rate is steady at 88 percent (The national annual-average retention rate ranges between 5-77 percet. NYC’s annual retention rate is 60 percent). As Children’s Corps continues to grow and improve its practice and increase its impact in New York City, Fostering Change for Children recognizes that programs like Children’s Corps are needed across the nation and that providing adequate training, compensation, and institutional support for social workers will help to address some of the bigger challenges in child welfare.

Developing systems that promote best practices, strengthen families and support workers must be a priority for child welfare organizations if we are to protect and nurture this nation's most vulnerable children and ensure that every child celebrates his/her favorite holiday with a loving, forever family.

Thanks to Foster Change for Children for sharing information about your research-based program. If you have any questions about the Children’s Corps program, email Heather-Ann Schaeffner at heatherann@fosteringchangeforchildren.org.

References

[1] Berrick, J.D., Needell, B., Barth, R.P., and Jonson-Reid, M. The tender years: Toward developmentally sensitive child welfare services for very young children. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

[2] Courtney, M.E., Barth, R.P., Berrick, J.D., et al. Race and child welfare services: Past research and future directions. Child Welfare (1996) 75(2):99–137; Brown, A.W., and Bailey-Etta, B. An outof- home care system in crisis: Implications for African American children in the child welfare system. Child Welfare (1997) 46:65–84; and Lawrence-Webb, C. African American children in the modern child welfare system: A legacy of the Flemming rule. Child Welfare (1997) 46:9–30.

[3] Pecora, P.J., Whittaker, J.K., Maluccio, A.N., et al. The child welfare challenge: Policy, practice, and research. 2nd ed. New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 2000; Gomes, P.G., and Mabry, C.A. Negotiating the world: The developmental journey of African American children. In Child welfare: An Africentric perspective. J.E. Everett, S.S. Chipungu, and B.R. Leashore, eds. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991, pp. 156–86; Hill, R.B. Enhancing the resilience of African American families. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment (1998) 1:49–61; and note 16, Pinderhughes.