Kentucky’s first child welfare center opens at WKU to solve child welfare problems with applied research

Five years ago, WKU faculty Dean May, Ed.D, M.S.W., B.A., and Austin Griffiths, Ph.D., CSW, had what would later prove to be a groundbreaking text message exchange.

In the conversation, the two discussed starting a child welfare center at WKU. And earlier this year, that idea became a reality when, in mid-July, WKU announced approval for the creation of the Center for Child Welfare and Research.

CCWEAR is the next chapter in a long-running partnership between WKU’s Department of Social Work and the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services’ Department for Community-Based Services. According to a university press release, “WKU’s ongoing partnership involves the professional education and training of the Cabinet’s child welfare workforce through the Training Resource Center, the MSW Stipend Program, the Public Child Welfare Certification Program and the Credit for Learning Initiative.”

The Center for Child Welfare Education and Research was approved by Western Kentucky University earlier this year and is the first child welfare center in the state of Kentucky.

Griffiths says the creation of CCWEAR is an important step in building on that partnership to create an applied research trajectory that will further improve the efficacy, quality of life and retention of the child welfare workforce, an especially important focus given Kentucky’s devastating distinction.

“Kentucky has the highest rate of child maltreatment in the country, according to Children’s Bureau Data,” Griffiths says. “You also have the intersection of three significant themes, including generational poverty and high rates of incarceration and substance abuse. As the location of the first child welfare center in Kentucky, we have a timely opportunity to do important work.”

A career comes full circle

If you classified Griffiths’ appointment as CCWEAR director a full-circle moment, you wouldn’t be wrong. After working in child welfare with the state of Kentucky for more than six years, Griffiths successfully pursued his master’s of Social Work at WKU and was then given an opportunity to join the faculty.

Patricia Desrosiers, Ph.D., LCSW (left), Austin Griffiths, Ph.D., MSW, and J. Dean May, Ed.D., MSW, presented at the 2019 National Title IV-E Roundtable. The 2020 conference will be held at Western Kentucky University.

Now, Griffiths has a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky and is a faculty member in WKU’s Master of Social Work program — the same program that he attended years ago as a student.

Finding solutions to pervasive industry problems

All of Griffiths’ research comes from his firsthand experience as part of the state’s child welfare workforce, during which time he conducted investigations into child maltreatment and provided ongoing services for children and families that experienced maltreatment.

With that invaluable perspective, Griffiths is no stranger to the myriad challenges of child welfare work, which are often prevalent nationwide and not just confined to a particular metro area or region. For example, Griffiths cites workforce turnover as a significant problem.

“Child welfare agencies can’t keep their workers, which negatively influences families,” he says. “Kids can’t be safe because there aren’t workers to help them. Plus, it’s expensive for the state government to maintain these workforces and people aren’t staying.”

Burnout and stress are two additional factors that contribute to high turnover throughout the industry.

“It’s not a secret to the people that do these jobs — it’s traumatic work,” Griffiths says.

Helping child welfare employees maintain optimal physical and mental health is the focus of Griffiths’ newly funded studies that will collect and analyze data on the health of people in the child welfare workforce. The multidisciplinary protocol will combine biometric indicators and mental health interventions to give child welfare employees the information and the tools to safeguard their health and wellness. Those findings could easily be shared with organizations nationwide to help improve workforce retention and general quality of life.

Members of CCWEAR visited the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota in October. CCWEAR director Austin Griffiths, Ph.D., CSW, says the visit gave the CCWEAR team an invaluable opportunity to further define CCWEAR’s messaging and fiscal modeling to help set the center up for long-term success.

Another project further showcases the multidisciplinary approach that’s an integral part of CCWEAR’s work. Griffiths, along with visiting assistant professor Matt Woodward, Ph.D., and Heather Webb, clinical director, Barren River Area Child Advocacy Center, Inc., are in the early stages of launching another study that will help another pervasive problem.

“In child welfare, you’re often putting a Band-Aid on a deeply rooted problem,” Griffiths says. “You’re showing up after the fact with limited time and you’re trying to do what you can to the best of your ability. Often, the best you can do is try to get services for the child, but you can almost never get the parent aligned with specialized services.”

Until now. As part of the study, the brainchild of Webb, a select group of family members — all female, to start — will be introduced to evidence-based, trauma-focused treatment groups that have historically been used for other populations, including veterans.

“The idea is to see if these groups will not only help parents with their own untreated trauma, but to also see how that improves family stability and outcomes over a progression of time,” Griffiths says. “Let’s say there’s domestic violence in the family and a child suffers some type of maltreatment or neglect. The child is sent to counseling, while the mom has untreated trauma that remains unaddressed. That parent could be a perpetrator of neglect as a result of her own trauma. Our goal is to see if, after people have improved their own trauma, are they less likely to neglect their child and in a state to provide better care?”

And that’s just the start of CCWEAR’s work. The center currently includes four members, in addition to Griffiths: May, who, through his work with the Credit for Learning Program and the Public Child Welfare Certification Program, oversees education and training as it relates to CCWEAR; Patricia Desrosiers, Ph.D., LCSW, who focuses on community engagement; April Murphy, Ph.D., CSW, who leads CCWEAR’s legislative advocacy; and Dana Sullivan, Ph.D., MSW, who, like Griffiths, is focused on facilitating CCWEAR research.

“It’s important that everyone has a piece of involvement in the center,” Griffiths says. “As a result, we can all draw on the group’s experiential wisdom.”

As CCWEAR grows and its research expands, WKU students will have increasing opportunities to work on various projects, including with data collection and analysis. The creation of CCWEAR has also already helped facilitate exciting learning and networking opportunities, including the 2020 National Title IV-E Roundtable, which arrives at WKU next May.

Research, presentations, knowledge sharing — everything that CCWEAR does supports a single, overarching goal.

“Our intentions are to change peoples’ lives,” Griffiths says. “Child welfare belongs to all of us. This is something that all of the CCWEAR associates are passionate about and work that we want to do together.”