Impacting child welfare caseworker retention as a Ph.D. student

social work ph.d. at colorado state university
Denise Raven (left) especially valued the collaborative support of faculty like her dissertation adviser Becky Orsi.

“It feels like a huge blessing to have things falling into place,” said School of Social Work Ph.D. grad Denise Raven. Her educational journey, combined with a career devoted to the public good, led her to research retention of caseworkers in public child welfare while pursuing her degree from the school’s doctoral program.

Raven received her M.S.W. in 1996 and spent five years in child welfare before switching to schools. “I became a play therapist, and was pursuing interests, building credentials and working with different populations,” said Raven. “I also supervised others pursuing their clinical license.”

She helped staff see connections between students’ disabilities, experiences, and behaviors. “I developed positive behavior supports, became a trainer for nonviolent crisis intervention, and educated staff around the district,”  said Raven.

Passion for child welfare led to focus on caseworker retention

After building career and raising a family, Raven decided to complete her Ph.D. “Once you’ve pursued your interests, you start thinking, ‘How can I tell if I am really making a difference?’ And that takes research, really,” said Raven. “It takes being able to look at the research and make sense of it.”

Raven enrolled in the doctoral program and began working for Larimer County’s Department of Human Services on research projects. “They were working on trauma-informed child welfare. In schools, I had seen how trauma impacted children’s ability to function,” said Raven.

“When you have a re-evaluation of a student with a lot of services, you’ll see things like processing of expressive and receptive language, occupational therapy, and high non-verbal IQs,” said Raven. “I saw it over and over again.”

“Larimer County’s assessments do a speech screening for expressive and receptive language, occupational therapy, and worldview,” said Raven. “They connect it to trauma experiences, and interventions for success at home, in a foster home, or in school.”

This led to work with the Social Work Research Center (SWRC), and her dissertation adviser, Becky Orsi. Orsi suggested Raven connect to a larger SWRC project investigating child welfare caseworker retention, and Raven agreed.

“Retention has a huge impact on children and families,” said Raven. “Caseworkers provide information to parents and school personnel; and for children who experienced trauma, functioning well in school and being part of a family are vital to develop resiliency.”

Raven was hired by SWRC to work with the Applied Research in Child Welfare Project, which overlapped with her dissertation. “Denise connected her passion for child welfare with a real desire to become a strong researcher and make a contribution to solving problems,” said Orsi.

For her dissertation, Raven’s work used quantitative data via electronic survey, and qualitative data via focus groups to learn more about caseworkers in eleven Colorado counties.

Results show a healthy workforce in terms of psychological and organizational factors with a strong commitment to child welfare work. Yet Raven found opportunities for change such as reducing paperwork, improving communication, and removing barriers to direct service.

Social work Ph.D. students connect research to community

“Denise is a perfect example of translating practice experience into research in ways that can improve services for children and families,” said Ph.D. Program Director Anne Williford. “That’s exactly what our doctoral program aims to do.”

“Each student can personalize a learning agenda and dissertation proposal while working with their adviser and dissertation committee members,” added Williford. “Advancing the field of social work through research and teaching the next generation of social workers is the core of our program.”

Applications for Colorado State University’s doctoral program in social work will be opening in Fall 2018.

The School of Social Work is part of the College of Health and Human Sciences.