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For the good of the children

In a best-case scenario, UT Arlington's Judith Granger Birmingham Center for Child Welfare would be out of business.

But with 280 child deaths from abuse or neglect in fiscal 2009, this School of Social Work center will be around a long time. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services cited those deaths, the highest number on record, in its annual report.

The Center for Child Welfare trains child welfare workers, surveys their job satisfaction, analyzes processes, studies implementation practices, and measures the outcomes that matter in a child's life. All the numbers and paperwork filter down to children and their families through case workers, interagency communication, and simplified systems where families can find answers and hope.

"This is very applied research as opposed to theoretical research," says social work Professor Maria Scannapieco, the center's director.

The center's key responsibilities include a certification program for child welfare workers, a life-skills workshop for older teens who will leave foster care, and a new project in implementation science.

One research project redefines "success." The center will evaluate matches of adult mentors and youth in Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Texas.

Maria Scannapieco

Maria Scannapieco, social work professor

"We're looking at evidence-based outcomes," Dr. Scannapieco says. "Instead of success being the number of meetings of the big brother and the youth, now we're looking at outcomes such as was the child able to stay in the same school or with the same mentor. It's about outcomes, not just output."

The center and the Dallas-based Transition Resource Action Center work together to prepare youth in foster care for adulthood through the PALS (Preparation for Adult Living Skills) programs. PALS teaches about budgeting, finding a job, and buying a car. The Center for Child Welfare also teaches life skills for 150 youth ages 15-19 at the annual three-day Texas Teen Conference, which encourages young people to earn a college degree.

Through the federal Title IV-E program, undergraduate and graduate students receive a stipend to work in child welfare. In return, the 30-50 students per semester agree to work two years for Family and Protective Services. Alumna Erika Loera ('09 MSW) says the program was a great benefit.

"I was going to school full time and working part time. The stipend allowed me to quit my job so I could focus on the internship," she says. That internship with Child Protective Services led to a job after graduation.

Scannapieco surveys child welfare workers after graduation, after working three months, and again after one year. Since 1996 she has made an annual report of her findings.

"People aren't staying for the pay," she says. "It's adequate support, peer mentoring, and autonomy."

The latest center undertaking is the creation of the Mountain-Plains Child Welfare Implementation Center at UT Arlington, the first of five national initiatives with the Children's Bureau, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"The whole idea of creating the implementation centers was to improve services and systems for families and children," says Susan Ferrari, the Mountain-Plains project coordinator.

A five-year collaboration with the University of Denver's Butler Institute for Families and the Native American Training Institute, the Mountain-Plains center will help child welfare agencies in 11 states and 76 Native American tribes implement better practices. The agencies or tribes must apply for assistance on specific projects.

The largest project, Colorado's child welfare department, will create and implement standardized practices, forms, and paperwork throughout the state, which had no common system. Work with Native American tribes may include creating and implementing computer data collection processes.

- Teresa Newton