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With nearly 400,000 children currently in foster care in the United States, graduates of a new specialization at the School of Social Policy & Practice will help meet the increased demand for child welfare workers.

The Child Well-Being and Welfare specialization at SP2, which will enroll its first class this fall, will train students in a yearlong program to work with children in foster care. Applications for the program will be open until March 18.

“There is a tremendous need to train child welfare workers because the turnover rate is so huge in this field,” Johanna Greeson, a child welfare researcher and co-director of the specialization, said. “This is a training opportunity for students, and [an opportunity] for Philadelphia and the whole country in terms of adding to the workforce.”

Greeson and co-director Antonio Garcia have been developing the specialization since October. The first students accepted into the program will take a course in the fall that addresses child protection on a clinical level and offers an overview of broader policies in child welfare. Greeson and Garcia will co-teach the class.

“We’re giving the students a chance to see how direct practice interacts with policy and procedures in a child welfare setting,” Garcia said.

Greeson and Garcia hope to welcome 25 students to the program. The co-directors applied for a federal grant that, if approved, will pay each student a stipend of $4,000 for their participation.

Students in the specialization will select a field placement ­- an internship beyond Penn’s campus where they will work for three days each week. Some students will work at the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, while others will be stationed at agencies that provide foster care services. Some may be working in school settings as well.

“I’ve always wanted to work with children,” said Erin O’Donnell, a student who applied to the specialization. “My motto is ‘speak for people who can’t speak for themselves.’ I feel that with children, there’s a big push for that.”

Andrew Fussner, a lecturer at SP2, also helped develop the specialization with a focus on mental health in children and adolescents. The therapy component of child welfare is particularly appealing to O’Donnell.

“I would love to start out in a children’s hospital trauma unit ... where children have been through something, and I can be that first person who’s there for them,” O’Donnell said.

Greeson and Garcia plan to focus more on the challenges faced by children in foster care - specifically, children separated from their parents by the Department of Human Services - and social workers’ ability to determine when mental health services are necessary.

“We’re trying to facilitate reunification - to get the kids back home eventually,” Garcia said. “The goal [of the specialization] is to provide students with the assessment skills and the tools to determine when a return home is warranted or when to think about alternative viable options for the long-term.”

Next year, Garcia and Greeson plan to invite faculty from across Penn’s campus to give their students different perspectives on child welfare services.

“Other fields like medicine, law, education and psychology are all involved in child welfare work too,” Greeson said. “Everyone has a different perspective and addresses a different part of the puzzle.”

Applicants are hopeful that their experience in the specialization will teach them more about the broader scope of child welfare policies - what is considered the “macro” approach in social work.

“I have a strong interest in working with children in the mental health field in the future,” Marigny Shapiro-Shellaby, another student applicant, said. “This looked like an opportunity to learn more about children - not only mental health but policy surrounding child welfare, which I don’t know much about.”

She said this opportunity could “open up [her] eyes” about how she can “benefit youth in more ways than just in a clinical, therapy sense.”

O’Donnell said that this program will help children who aren’t always given the help that they need.

“Through this specialization we’re going to be given the skills to help children the way they need to be helped,” O’Donnell said.

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