October 15, 2004

School of Social Work receives major DCFS grant

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. - - Children referred to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services will receive a more comprehensive and timely assessment of their living situations under a new program that heavily utilizes the Southern Illinois University Carbondale School of Social Work.

Under the Illinois Model of Integrated Assessment Program, the SIUC School of Social Work is providing expanded mental health and behavioral health services in all but the 18 northernmost counties in Illinois.

SIUC is receiving a $2.93 million DCFS grant this year to hire child welfare specialists, licensed social workers and clinical psychologists, other personnel and also meet travel expenses to work with 55 field offices within the 84 counties in Southern and central Illinois. Four other DCFS contracted partners - - Northern Illinois University Psychology Department, Children's Memorial Hospital, La Rabida Children's Hospital, and the Erikson Institute, all in Chicago - - are providing expanded services to the remaining counties.

Chancellor Walter V. Wendler said the grant reflects the well-deserved reputation of the School of Social Work's faculty and staff.

"The Department of Children and Family Services recognizes the professionalism, hard work and dedication of our faculty and staff," Wendler said. "They are committed to making positive contributions to the people of Illinois."

John M. Dunn, provost and vice chancellor, noted that the grant also offers opportunities for faculty research and fellowships for students.

"This is a significant undertaking that clearly will benefit our faculty, students and families throughout the state," he said.

R. Keith Hillkirk, dean of the College of Education and Human Services, said, "The grant from DCFS will enable the School of Social Work faculty to build upon and strengthen a long-standing relationship to better serve Illinois children and their families."

The integrated assessment is a process for collecting family information within the first 45 days after a child enters DCFS care. It will improve case planning and provide clear recommendations for the family, said professor Mizanur R. Miah, director of the School of Social Work and the project's principal investigator.

"This will complement what DCFS child welfare workers are doing in the field," Miah said.

The clinically based assessments will include in-depth interviews with the children and family members, including birth parents, caregivers, paramours and other significant adults in the child's life. The assessments will better prepare caseworkers to meet the demands of caring for the child's developmental, health, social, physical and emotional needs, program director Shari Selander said.

The statewide application of the program follows an effective two-year pilot program in the Chicago area, she said.

"This can pave the way of how child welfare operates nationwide," she said. "Clearly the eyes of the other states are going to be on Illinois to see how this works."

Working closely with DCFS caseworkers allows the clinical screeners in the program to collect critical family information in the early stage of cases. That ensures prompt identification of safety and risk factors, improves service planning and makes certain appropriate services are put in place for the family, Miah said.

"One of the goals is for an emphasis on prevention and early identification of service needs," Selander said. "A benefit to this program is looking and identifying what service needs are lacking in particular geographical areas so that we can identify services that families are needing but are not available - - then hopefully bring services to those communities."

The statewide program provides for a standardized, uniform check-and-balance system, Selander said. A child who lives in Cairo or Chicago should each have the "same thorough assessment, services should be identified, and children and families should be given the specific services needed," she said.

Different assessments will be made on children depending on their ages. Children from 0-5 will receive developmental screenings; children between 6 and 18 years old will receive behavioral and mental health screenings. Assessments will occur in the family home, when possible.

Miah and Selander emphasized that the project is a collaborative effort with DCFS child welfare workers.

"In many cases, these emotional, behavioral and mental health needs may go undetected for months," Miah said. "But here, in the first 45 days, we will have a very good idea about this. The family and workers will know where the best services can be provided."

Foster parents will also benefit from an early identification of service needs for children they are caring for, and the hope is that leads to less movement of children between foster homes, said Selander.

The SIUC project is staffing 27 full-time equivalent positions, including field coordinators for each of the two regions. Miah anticipates completing the hiring process by Nov. 1, followed by specialized training. The goal is to hire qualified people throughout the two regions "so we can be most effective in administering this program," said Selander.

As a part of the project, research opportunities will be available to faculty to determine the best needs of the region and state. In addition, $50,000 is available for five fellowships for outstanding students in the School of Social Work who are going into the child welfare field.

The project meets many of the goals in Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, including ongoing research opportunities, comprehensive student training, and service to the region, Miah said. Southern@150 is the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

"We have a service mission that we want to serve the region, particularly the underserved and disadvantaged populations," Miah said. "These children and their families are disadvantaged in many, many ways, especially in rural Southern Illinois and central regions."

For more information, contact Miah at 618/453-2243 or Selander at 618/453-7258.