Building bridges for child welfare

CASCW is a resource for professionals, students, and policymakers

Esther Wattenberg
Esther Wattenberg

Private agencies have been serving children and families for a century, but the child welfare system as we know it today was established as a public agency mandate in the 1970s with the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) followed in 1978. Throughout this history, reform efforts of various kinds—philosophical, legislative mandates, public vs. private responsibility, and practice techniques and models—have continued to evolve. A major theme has been balancing child safety with keeping families intact.

Esther Wattenberg recognized a need for child protection reform early in her career, which began in the 1950s. She came to the University with her husband, a prominent cancer researcher, and soon joined the U faculty herself. Since her appointment in the School of Social Work (SSW) in 1972, she has valued the use of research to make change and provided opportunities for policy makers, practitioners, and scholars to work together. She also became a prolific and persuasive writer of opinion pieces and practice notes.

In 1992, Wattenberg and Jean Quam, then director of the School of Social Work, founded the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare in a joint effort with the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services and funding from the Bush Foundation. CASCW became the home of federal Title IV-E funding for Child Welfare Scholars, providing specialized training related to child protection, foster care, and permanency that the school didn’t then have.

Dean Quam, center, with faculty members Esther Wattenberg and the late Clarke Chambers at the Social Welfare History Archives, 2014.

“Originally, Esther and I saw it as a way to support students and attract students of color into the field of child welfare,” says Quam. “Over time we started to see that the center could be a great resource to the community and to educational programs all around the state, too.”

Janine Moore was one of the scholars drawn to CASCW. As a young county employee who discovered her gift for working with families in need, she was encouraged by her supervisors, mentors, and colleagues to go back to school to finish her degree. But the MSW was another hurdle.

“The Title IV-E program left me no excuses,” says Moore with a smile. “I was personally supported by CASCW, including Esther Wattenberg. Years later when I received the school’s Alumni of the Year award, Esther was in the audience. She is one of the most insightful, intelligent, and dedicated child welfare champions I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.”

Traci LaLiberte
Traci LaLiberte

Wattenberg served as director of CASCW until 2001. Today, with Traci LaLiberte, PhD, at the helm, it continues her mission of improving the well-being of children and families through education, bridging research and policy, and connecting more highly trained child welfare social workers statewide, including rural counties and the White Earth band of Ojibwe.

“In a rural area, it’s easy to feel disconnected,” says Kristen Struss of Mora, another former Title IV-E scholar. But CASCW keeps Minnesota’s workforce connected. “I’m so thankful for that.”

CASCW is uniquely positioned to impact both the broadly defined child welfare workforce while also working to improve outcomes for children and families through policy, research, and practice collaborations.

“It’s a tremendous responsibility,” says LaLiberte, “but also an incredible honor to do this work.”

Return to “Helping families, protecting children.”

Story by Gayla Marty | Photo by Mandy Dwyer | Winter 2018