U prof’s work advances child welfare

by Jessica Weaver

When planning her latest research on child welfare, Susan Wells decided reading academic journals and books in a library would not help her understand the problem accurately.

So the School of Social Work professor went into the community and interviewed members of child welfare organizations, supervisors in the child welfare system and experts in the field.

From the information she gathered, Wells prepared a child welfare research agenda, the first of its kind in Minnesota. Wells presented the agenda to legislators, people in the child welfare field, social workers and community members to make sure the objectives she was presenting reflected issues that concerned them. They were able to give Wells valuable input about the child welfare research agenda, she said.

The research agenda aims to link problems within the child welfare system to research being done in the field. The two-year project pulls together the needs for child welfare in one place and serves as a starting point for research, Wells said.

“We are trying to be responsive and work on issues of immediate importance,” Wells said.

She said the agenda shows the University is in touch with the broader community’s needs.

“What is exciting about (the research agenda) is the researchers combining with the community to put forth priorities,” said Minh Ta, public policy director for the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota.

Ta said research often has no real link to problems facing the community and policy makers.

She said a current problem in child welfare is the disparity in placement. Black children are almost 16 times more likely than white children to be placed in the child welfare system. This inequality is one of the points addressed in the research agenda.

Joan Riebel, executive director of Family Alternatives, said the agenda is on target with child welfare issues.

Riebel said Wells addresses a growing problem in the child welfare system – the disparity of black children in the system.

“We definitely partner with families and leaders in the African-American community to make it better for the children,” Riebel said.

The research will also address the rate of re-entry into the child welfare system. According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Minnesota’s rate of re-entry of children into foster care is 22.7 percent, compared to the national standard of 8.6 percent. Wells said the figure depends on how the cases are counted, an issue she addresses in her current research.

Wells received a $235,000 federal grant to study re-entry into foster care in 11 states. Wells will receive $30,000 from the grant for the next two years, while four doctoral students under her supervision will use the rest of the money for their


Sarah Ferguson, a doctoral student receiving part of the funding, is researching supervision within the child welfare system, one of the points on the agenda.

Supervision is always a concern in the child welfare system, especially with turnover of social workers, Ferguson said.

Other issues Wells’ agenda addresses are prevention of child mistreatment, child protection, child and family services, out-of-home care, program planning and administration, reunification and adoption/relative custody. The School of Social Work researches some of these issues.