As social workers across the state and nation face increasing challenges in delivering services, a Forrest County program administered through The University of Southern Mississippi serves as a model for alleviation of case loads, recruiting and training of qualified individuals for the profession.
A School of Social Work training academy operating within the Forrest County unit of the Department of Human Services Division of Family and Children Services is proving that by increasing academic and on-site support for potential and practicing social workers, case loads per worker decrease significantly.
Other benefits include more interest within the field and more importantly, less children in foster care.
"The training academy was intended to give training to workers, provide more support and establish good relationships with the youth court," said Dr. Michael Forster, College of Health interim dean and social work professor at Southern Miss. "This is really quite a unique relationship our local agency has with the university."
The training academy began three years ago in response to the growing need for more social workers in Mississippi. Common issues within the field include low pay, high case loads, retention and secondary trauma, said Dr. Tim Rehner, School of Social Work interim director.
"Typically, social workers have been underpaid and mostly underappreciated, much like the teaching profession," Rehner said.
In 2006, an estimated 243 children were in foster care in Forrest County with only four social workers to handle case loads. By implementing the training academy, the Forrest County agency now has 16 social workers with about 150 children in foster care.
"Child welfare work isn't easy, you want a great selection of people," Forster said. "Regarding retention, we're trying to be more selective of people hired and paint a more realistic picture for them about the job, while providing more support to those who are recruited."
The academy has served as a tool to select and train better qualified candidates for the profession by giving university students a chance to visit and spend time working alongside practicing social workers.
"We've been able to teach students about child welfare and explain what they can do by pursuing a career in social work," said John Reynolds, director for Child Welfare Programs with the School of Social Work.
Reynolds said the academy's next step is strategic planning for agency policies, like recommending changes for the practice manual for social workers. And as the success of the model brings interest from other counties in the state to train for more social workers, the academy may expand.
About The University of Southern Mississippi
The University of Southern Mississippi, founded in 1910, is a comprehensive doctoral and research-extensive university fulfilling its mission of being a leading university in engaging and empowering individuals to transform lives and communities. In a tradition of leadership for student development, Southern Miss is educating a 21st century work force providing intellectual capital, cultural enrichment and innovation to Mississippi and the world. Southern Miss is located in Hattiesburg, Miss., with an additional campus and teaching and research sites on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; further information is found at www.usm.edu.