UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Spring|Summer 2003
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Helping at-risk children and youth flourish and grow

By Lawrence Shulman
Dean, University at Buffalo School of Social Work

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Who are the "at-risk" children and youth? Many of them live in families where neglect or physical, emotional and sexual abuse may be part of their everyday existence. Many also endure the hardships of poverty, inadequate housing and the traumatic experience of violence in their communities. In the Buffalo schools, for example, reports of suspensions for violence against peers and teachers, or possession of drugs or weapons, have been increasing. Students have been suspended as early as second grade. In most cases aggressive behavior represents an indirect call for help. If we respond by suspending a child without addressing the underlying issues, there usually is an escalation of the behavior.

Many of these children become known to the child welfare system, where they may encounter additional risks. We have been shocked by reports from Florida of abused children "lost" in the system, while caseworkers continued to provide reports of nonexistent visits. Revelations of the chaotic conditions in the Newark, New Jersey, child welfare offices revealed that abused children were not being protected.

Why do we move from crisis to crisis in child welfare with high rates of staff turnover? The answer, in part, lies in the complexity of the issues involved. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse are among the most difficult issues to address with families. Associated substance abuse may be a causative factor or a maladaptive way of dealing with devastating emotions.

While most caseworkers in child welfare are dedicated and deeply concerned about their clients, they often are young people who assume their positions after receiving an effective, but abbreviated, training program. The common use of the description "social worker" is misleading, since most lack professional social work training. We are asking the least trained workers to deal with the most difficult clients, often with minimal oversight from overworked supervisors. It is easy to understand why child welfare staff experience the highest "burnout" rates of any helping professionals.

At the UB School of Social Work our faculty and students have been working on developing and implementing innovative approaches to address both the child welfare and the school and community violence issues. If we are serious about addressing these issues then we must take steps to "professionalize" child welfare. A number of states require a bachelorís or masterís of social work (B.S.W. or M.S.W.) degree for entry-level practice.


The New York State Office for Children and Family Services, under the leadership of Commissioner John Johnson, has developed a partnership with UB and 12 other graduate schools of social work across the state to increase the number of child welfare workers pursuing professional degrees. At UB alone, more than 60 Western New York caseworkers enrolled in 3-credit elective courses in the fall of 2002. Their tuition was funded through federal, state and county grants. Many have enrolled as part-time M.S.W. students at our Buffalo, Jamestown, Corning and Rochester sites. UB also offers a range of noncredit training programs to child welfare workers, and we also implemented a new online course in child psychopathology.

We also are addressing school and community violence. In 2001 a center was established on the South Campus that, over a one-year period, served 270 children suspended from Buffalo schools. Teachers, social workers and a behavioral counselor provided a two-week intervention program for 30 children at a time. The program focused on academic content, group and individual counseling and conflict-resolution skills. An effort was made to identify the underlying message of the behavior and to make family referrals for longer term intervention. When the children returned, reports to the school staff helped alert them to student problems and progress.

Unfortunately, the program was a casualty of the state budget cuts related to September 11. UB was able to continue a more limited suspension-prevention program at Kensington High School in Buffalo. Kensington was one of the few schools in the city experiencing a significant drop in suspensions. While many factors contributed to this change, our program was clearly an important one.

In summary, many children at risk could be helped through relatively small effort. Appropriate professional training of child welfare staff is needed. Keeping children at home, when appropriate, is less expensive than supporting them in foster care or residential treatment. Responding to the early signals of troubling student behavior is easier than dealing with escalating offenses leading to increases in crime, addictions and incarcerations. Studies have consistently shown that even one caring adult can provide a protective factor that helps high-risk children thrive. We must make these issues a political priority. If we donít, we will continue to respond only to crisisóand we may lose another generation of at-risk children and youth.

Shulman   Dean of the School of Social Work since 1997, Lawrence Shulman has been a social work practice educator for more than 30 years. He has done extensive research on the core helping skills in social work practice, supervision and child welfare. The author or coeditor of seven books, he was recently named coeditor of the journal The Clinical Supervisor.

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