Lexi Mueller grew up intending to follow the long line of educators in her family and become a teacher. Yet, over the years, her relatives’ comments sparked a shift in thinking.
“I was hearing over and over again how difficult it was to teach students whose basic needs were not being met at home,” says the master’s student from Rockton, Illinois. “This changed my original intention to teach, into a desire for making sure children are safe, fed and clothed and have somewhere to sleep at night, so that by the time they get to school, they are ready and able to learn.”
A program within UW-Madison’s School of Social Work is preparing Mueller for that important work, while filling other crucial needs throughout the state.
The Public Child Welfare Training Program uses federal Title IV-E funds to train graduate and undergraduate social work students to work in public child welfare. Students are placed in positions in Dane and surrounding counties, and then join Wisconsin’s public child welfare workforce after earning their degrees. To date, students have served in more than 40 counties.
“The program has trained more than 200 social workers since its inception in 1999,” says Ellen Smith, program coordinator and a clinical associate professor in the School of Social Work. “Our graduates take positions all over the state of Wisconsin in public child welfare and dedicate their professional lives to serving our most vulnerable children and families.”
Public child welfare professionals take on a wide variety of roles, from responding to allegations of child abuse and neglect to working within the foster care and public adoption systems. Some also do work at the policy level.
Last year, while Mueller did initial assessment child protective services work at Dane County Human Services, she learned that there’s no “average” day for a social worker. Keeping children safe and on track means constantly pivoting to where you’re needed most.
“You might meet with somebody from law enforcement in the morning, come back to your desk and do some office work, interview kids at a school around lunchtime, return to the office and make collateral phone calls and then head out for a home visit in the evening to talk with caregivers once they are home from work,” she says. “The next day you’ll probably do something very similar except the meetings may be in court, at a child advocacy center or with other social workers about a mutual client.”
Such real-world experience is important, as turnover runs high among child welfare professionals, some of whom enter the field without knowing exactly what to expect. While students in the Public Child Welfare Training Program are required to work in Wisconsin for the same amount of time as they received federal funding — usually a year or two — they average four years, Smith says.
“I think we do a really good job of selecting people, and our program prepares them well for the realities of the work,” she says.
Social workers are there for families at their worst time, while also being present during some of the most wonderful life-changing events.
Katarina Liptrot-Ploch, a master’s student from Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, was placed last year at Dane County Child Protective Services. She said that while the work was challenging — even heartbreaking — there were high points. She’ll never forget the smiles on clients’ faces after her supervisor set up a holiday gift-giving program for families in need last December.
“Social workers are there for families at their worst time, while also being present during some of the most wonderful life-changing events,” says Liptrot-Ploch. “This event proved that we were there to help and that we cared.”
Katie Taber agrees that it’s a privilege to witness families through ups and downs.
“It is really humbling to sit in front of a person — parent or child — and hear about their experiences of abuse, neglect, poverty, racism, mental illness,” says the master’s student from Madison. “Learning about all the ways that society can push a family further down and how hard it can be to get back up shifted my worldview. We never know what someone else is going through or how they ended up in a certain situation.”
Following a placement last year at child protective intake at Jefferson Human Services, Taber is more eager than ever have a positive impact on Wisconsin families.
“I love kids but what I really wanted to do was work with their parents and the whole family unit,” she says. “Social work is just the perfect avenue to do that.”