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School sponsors second seminar on solving child welfare’s “wicked problems”

UNC social work leaders, child welfare administrators, researchers, philanthropists, and policymakers along with state, national, and international experts from a variety of disciplines will gather in Chicago next month to tackle the “wicked problems” of child welfare.

The roundtable discussion, known as “The Wicked Problems Institute,” is the second in a three-session series to address efforts to improve the safety, family permanence, and overall well-being of abused and neglected children. The October 3-4 institute will focus on bridging the research and practice divide.

Specifically, participants will talk about ideas for increasing partnerships between universities and public and private agencies as a way of generating innovative solutions in child welfare and as a way of building “the community connections and accountability systems” needed to ensure that abused, neglected, and other vulnerable children find safe and permanent homes.

UNC’s School of Social Work and the Children’s Home Society of America, a nationwide network of voluntary child welfare agencies, are co-sponsoring the Chicago event with support from Casey Family Programs, the nation’s largest operating foundation focused on foster care and improving the child welfare system. A third and final session is slated for February in Washington, D.C., and will focus on the “manageability” of child well-being as a child welfare outcome.

The first institute, which was held earlier this year at the UNC School of Social Work, drew more than 60 participants from across the nation. Talks centered on ways that child welfare providers can balance innovative solutions with those that have been proven effective. But attendees also lamented the difficulties that child welfare agencies face in finding permanent homes for children in state custody when existing federal funding is structured to favor programs that keep children in foster care.

The institutes are groundbreaking because they bring together a diverse group of experts who understand that there is no clear agreement on the causes of child maltreatment, nor complete solutions for solving the problem, or even consensus for measuring success, said Mark Testa, the School of Social Work’s Spears-Turner Distinguished Professor, and a nationally recognized architect of innovative reforms in the fields of child protection and foster care. Testa and Jack Richman, the School’s dean, are spearheading the series of wicked problem meetings.

“These discussions allow us to raise questions that do not lend themselves to easy answers, which is what makes them wicked problems,” Testa said. “Why is it that we have a child welfare problem? Is it because we have bad parents, and all we need to do is to take those kids and put them with better parents? Or is the problem that the system within our communities and the way we work and support families is broken, and we need to fix that so that the families are stronger and capable of taking care of those kids?” Generally, people are sometimes divided over the answers, Testa added.

As the welfare discussion moves to Chicago, Testa said the focus also will shift toward examining how and why agency-university-public partnerships have been successful in improving child welfare practices and results in some states but not so much in others. Some of that discussion will focus on partnerships in Illinois, New Jersey, and Washington.

“These kinds of partnerships really help public and private agencies stay on top of what the current knowledge is in the field, to work on the development of training materials to train workers in the latest evidence-based practice, and to develop a research agenda,” Testa said.