The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Volume 21 | Issue 1 | Winter 2014
Change of Course How do child welfare workers support the well-being of kids?

The child welfare system is paying more attention to the social and emotional health of the children in its care. It’s a fundamental change that will require everyone involved—from the caseworkers to policymakers—to rethink how to do their jobs.

With the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997, the federal government made finding a permanent home for children in foster care a priority, and since then, permanence and safety have been foster care’s primary goals. For more than a decade, though, some academics and advocates have argued that how well children in care are faring should also be on that list.

Last April, the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a call for the field to do just that, with proposed targets for how state and local systems integrate social and emotional well-being into services, workforce training, decisions and evaluation. Illinois was one of the states that obtained a federal waiver grant to promote well-being for children from birth to age five, and the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services has created an Office of Child Well-Being.

“This is a cultural shift; it’s a policy shift; it’s a practice shift,” says Gina Samuels, an associate professor at SSA. “We’re social beings, and these children have felt a kind of assault on their well-being and development. It’s important because there’s increasing evidence that childhood experiences of maltreatment or nurturing support have an impact on how well foster children succeed in life.”

Even though well-being hasn’t been promoted and measured in the same ways as safety and permanence, Samuels points out that it has always been an implicit goal for foster care. “It is called the ‘child welfare system,’ after all,” she says. Before a new emphasis on well-being can be built into child welfare’s rules, trainings and performance measurements, she argues, we need to have a more complete understanding of where and how it already exists.

This year, Samuels will launch a research project in conjunction with Julia Price at the Loyola University School of Social Work designed to clarify how social welfare professionals define “well-being” and how they understand their role in promoting it for foster youth and families. The study will conduct in-depth interviews with child welfare professionals, including state and private agency administrators, managers/supervisors and caseworkers.

“I expect there are people who have been very much shaped by the earlier philosophy of making every effort to simply move kids quickly out of foster care into adoption or back to their birth families. This was viewed as synonymous with well-being,” Samuels says. “But there also may be some child welfare professionals who are already thinking of ‘well-being’ as a distinct element of child welfare practice, and others whose work may include attending to the social and emotional needs of children but who don’t identify well-being as its own goal. I’m really interested in learning from these experts about the many ways of practicing that contribute to well-being of children and families.” — Carl Vogel