Faculty Interview: Jennifer Massie

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Title IV-E Training Coordinator

1. Which parts of the University of Nevada, Reno MSW curriculum are especially relevant for students interested in your specialties: child welfare, sexuality, and social work, and social work and feminism?

I supervise a team that works on a grant program. It is a program through the state (draw down federal funds) to professionalize the child welfare workforce. It is a national partnership model and the state division of child and family services partner with universities to focus on professionalizing the child welfare workforce. I am the coordinator of the program, in an administrative faculty position, and we have two full-time trainers. We just recently had our grand doubled for the upcoming year which means we are doubling our training staff and hiring an instructional designer and evaluator. We are in an area of growth and looking at how we might continue to expand our presence.

There are two parts to what we do:

  • Part 1: Train the current child welfare workforce in northern Nevada
  • Part II: Manage a stipend program or a financial incentive given to students at the bachelor’s of social work level who choose to go into child welfare

Students working in this niche have developed competencies in general workforce development. I am a sexuality educator and sexuality in social work is something that I am interested in developing in the school.

The MSW curriculum itself gives a generalist perspective for child welfare because you touch every practice area when you work in child welfare. What I mean by “every practice area” is each population that you might work with as there is a lot of overlap with child welfare. When we talk about all of the different practice areas you have to keep in mind it’s not just “working with kids”. You are working with families and family dynamics as well. We talk about oppression and disproportionality. Families could be struggling with all different social issues like substance abuse, mental health or general poverty. All of this might relate to micro practice and what we do to impact families and children that are at risk. I can’t think of a course in the MSW curriculum that doesn’t have some relevance to child welfare.

The grant program demonstrates community connectedness and outreach.

2. What types of careers are available for MSW graduates interested in a specialty of child welfare?

Specifically working in a child welfare agency; there are many different types of positions. Usually, if you haven’t worked in the field before you would start in an area where you either did front-end assessment like responding to allegations of abuse and neglect. Or you’d be a permanency worker or back-end worker as a social worker who works with children and families after they have come into care. Having a master’s degree would certainly help facilitate being promoted to a supervisor once you have that front-line work experience.

Adoptions work is always something that interest people; if a child can’t return home and parental rights are terminated there is an entire unit who would work with the kids and potential adoptive families to make matches and work on transition planning.

Independent living, working with teenagers who are in care but will be aging out of foster care. It is the workers that are working to transition them out of care and into adulthood

There is also foster parent recruitment in training or even administrative opportunities like supervisory roles. Different agencies have different names and structures but you can work up into more senior management types of positions.

3. Are there any new trends in child welfare—or one of your other focuses—that are emerging, or areas you believe deserve more research and exploration?

I think that there is a continued emphasis on how do we assess a child’s safety. It used to be that if we thought there was any possibility of a problem that we would remove kids. We now realize that being removed from a family is traumatic for a child and we don’t have a lot of resources like foster families, etc. to cope with removing these children as a first resort. The prevailing idea now is trying to do a better job of mitigating risks for safety threats before removing a child from the situation prematurely. We realize that foster care is not a good place for kids and if there is something we can do to make their family situation safer while they stay there then we want to do that. There has to be a lot of precision and good decision making to make that happen. There are a lot of situations where you are trying to use all the tools at your disposal to predict human behavior and understand if a child is in a safe situation.

4. Describe training that you have delivered, as the training coordinator, that you feel has made the biggest impact on professionals related to child welfare.

Our team has integrated a great deal of training on an evidence-based practice called motivational interviewing. Motivational interviewing is the use of interviewing skills that promote people as the experts in their own lives. It helps to pull out peoples intrinsic motivations to move them towards change.

For example, if you had a client who has a substance abuse issue. A traditional model might be to go in and say to the client, “you have a substance issue and you aren’t taking care of your kids so you need to go into treatment.” A social worker saying here is your problem and this is what you need to do to fix it; however, this is not an intervention that works with human behavior.

Using motivational interviewing would entail a social worker to be engaging the person in a dialogue to understand how substance abuse is affecting their life and highlighting the discrepancy between what is going on in their lives vs. how they want their lives to be and helping them come to a conclusion based on their own values and intrinsic motivation. Rather than telling people what to do, help them recognize what changes they need to make in their lives and facilitate helping with those changes. Changes we make for our own reasons is more likely to be lasting and successful rather than changes we make because other people think we should.

5. When it comes to working with children, are there any areas social workers can improve upon? When working with LGBT youth or another demographic?

Child welfare is more work with families than it is with kids. Obviously, we work with both but it is a misnomer in child welfare. We are working on behalf of children with the adults in their lives. One of the big challenges in the work that people can improve upon for themselves is self-care and building resiliency. We have a lot of turnover in child welfare. The job is very demanding and it can eat you up. We are always trying to emphasize and make social workers aware that as helpers they need to help themselves first so they can continue to help others.

Certainly one area for improvement would be cultural humility — or cultural competence — the idea that it is unrealistic to be competent in somebody else’s culture. It is a better approach to stay open and inquisitive and asking people about themselves. Rather than suggesting that we know somebody else’s culture, stay humble and be inquisitive and aware. We are multidimensional and so is our culture; don’t make biased assumptions. If you actually want to know who someone is and what they value then the only way to get that is to ask them directly.

That works with any diverse group, including the LGBTQ youth. We need to not make assumptions about other people and instead ask those questions of them.

6. What advice/guidance would you have for an MSW graduate interested in social work as a whole, or specifically child welfare?

The biggest thing is to do your research. There is a lot of misconceptions about what child welfare work is so it is critical that people do their research and talk to others who are in the field and doing multiple phases of the work to get a better idea of what the work entails and then do self-assessment for what your strengths are to see if that is a match. There are many different practices areas in social work and each student has their strengths and their challenges so it is important to consider both things and think about the fit for everyone’s benefit.

An important strength in child welfare is flexibility. Every day is going to be different and you can plan very little and on the other side of that is internal structure. In a context where you have to be flexible no matter what is happening every day you still have visits you have to make and court reports, you have to write. There is a lot of things that you do have to have structure around. It is an interesting mix of being able to manage multiple demands but being comfortable enough with the flexibility that you can fly by the seat of your pants when you need to.