Alumna Teams Up with CSSW to Train New Generation of Foster Care Caseworkers for NYC

September 15, 2014 @ 5:55 pm

Children's Corps trainees, summer 2014, Social Work Building, NYCBy Gabriel Grossman

Liv Anna Homstead (MS‘12) knew she wanted to pursue work with families and social services when she decided to study Advanced Generalist Practicing and Programming at Columbia School of Social Work. But her first-year practicum placement at a foster care agency in Brooklyn gave her pause. Case workers would often refer birth parents to her for support and coaching during their family visits. She soon came to see that families were struggling to manage all the demands thrown at them and that caseworkers were too overburdened to give families the attention they needed.

"This experience really opened my eyes to the foster care system and its policies and practices that may not always work to the best of its intentions,” she recalls. The underlying cause was the low retention rate for caseworkers in the city's foster care system because of the need to juggle heavy caseloads with little support. On average, the city loses about forty percent of these caseworkers annually—a basic structural instability that “can sometimes ignite more trauma for families,” she says.

Fortunately, in her second year Homstead was placed with the nonprofit Fostering Change for Children and assigned to assist its flagship program, Children’s Corps. Inspired by Teach for America, Barry Chaffkin, the co-founder and CEO of Fostering Change for Children, had the vision of developing a similar model to ensure that caseworkers within the foster care system have the knowledge base as well as the structural and emotional support they would need to be successful in their work. Begun four years ago, Children's Corps is now a successful and expanding program.

Fostering Change for Children's mission appealed to Homstead so much that she applied to work with the organization upon graduation. She was hired to grow and develop its new Children's Corps program from an inaugural training class of 23 in 2011 to 50 in 2014. Building on her relationship with her alma mater, the Columbia School of Social Work, she helped with the process of engaging the school as a partner in hosting the annual summer training academy for the members of Children's Corps and in providing faculty to serve as guest lecturers, mentors, or program evaluators. (Chaffkin, too, has ties with CSSW, having been an adjunct lecturer and now a practicum advisor.)

With the support of CSSW, Children's Corps has now put 135 skilled and dedicated workers into the field to serve children and families in New York City. The retention rate of these workers continues to be significantly higher than the city average.

While developing the program, Homstead has relished becoming part of larger conversations concerning child welfare policy. “I have joined groups, led discussions, and attended conferences, such as the North America Council for Adoptable Children conference, held in Toronto, and the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America conference in Massachusetts,” she says. “These events have given me the opportunity to network with like-minded professionals and leaders in the field, to share best practices, and to nurture relationships that may lead to collaboration in the future.”

“I’ve been super-impressed with the organization,” said Columbia College graduate Margaret Woollatt, who participated in the summer 2014 training session. “They know their material really well, and they know the system really well. They’re incredibly responsive and in tune with the players in the field right now.”

But probably the most crucial element that makes Children’s Corps a success is the support system it provides for overburdened caseworkers in the city's foster care system. As Woollatt put it: “It’s what everybody wants in a professional situation, but unfortunately you don’t always get it. And they’re doing it out of the goodness of their hearts.”

Another 2014 participant with a Columbia background, Frances Hogan—she has an M.A. in Human Rights Studies from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences—concurred. She said she believes that the support structure provided by Children's Corps enables caseworkers and students to become true agents of social change. “Children’s Corps has really validated all of my questions of what social work looks like—or what I would want it to look like—and how I would want to engage with families and make meaningful change, or help them make meaningful change,” Hogan said.

Gabriel Grossman is a graduate student in Columbia's film program and currently works as an assistant in CSSW's Office of Academic Affairs.

Image: Several participants in the Children's Corps training academy that took place in the Social Work Building, Summer 2014 (Margaret Woollatt, cited in the article, is far left); photo credit: Dorothy Robinson.