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Federal child welfare grants assist future social workers at UW-Eau Claire

| Gary Johnson

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire senior Theresa Guth says funding she received through a federal program to support training for future child welfare social workers is "truly a gift."

Senior Theresa Guth has picked up overtime hours at her summer and weekend jobs throughout her college career to help pay for bills and tuition at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

This fall, Guth, a social work major from Pelican Lake, has less financial stress thanks to a $9,000 grant for tuition and fees and a $1,800 stipend from a federal program intended to support training for future child welfare social workers.

“This grant is truly a gift,” Guth says. “Because I do not have a great financial burden, I am able to focus a bit more on my studies rather than worry about the bills I need to pay.” 

UW-Eau Claire receives nearly $200,000 a year under the Federal Foster Care Program, which is administered by states to provide safe and stable out-of-home care for children until they can return to their homes. A portion of the funding is used to support the training of future social workers. 

The program allows UW-Eau Claire to offer the $9,000 grants and $1,800 stipends to up to eight applicants per year. The funding is applied to students’ last two semesters in the social work program; juniors would receive the funding for their senior year. 

UW-Eau Claire currently has seven students in the program because one was able to graduate early by completing a summer internship.

“For many students, the grant is a game-changer,” says Dr. Carmen Manning, dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences.

The child welfare field is in dire need of well-trained professionals, says Dr. Leah Olson-McBride, professor and chair of UW-Eau Claire’s social work department.

In 2017, the Casey Family Foundation, a national organization devoted to improving the lives of at-risk children, estimated a 30% turnover rate in the child welfare workforce, according to Olson-McBride.

Under the grant program, UW-Eau Claire requires that recipients take six credits of child welfare-specific coursework and take part in a one-week domestic immersion focused on child welfare. Grant recipients also must complete a 432-hour internship in a child welfare-related setting before graduation.

After graduation, UW-Eau Claire grant recipients must work for a year in a Wisconsin public child welfare setting.

“We know that nothing can duplicate the learning that occurs via on-the-job experiences,” Olson-McBride says. “However, we strive to ensure that our graduates are as prepared as possible for work with children and families involved in the child welfare system.”

Alexa Billeb of Wausau is a May 2020 UW-Eau Claire graduate who received the grant during her senior year. Billeb has been working since June in the human services department of a central Wisconsin county.

“I couldn’t be happier at my placement,” Billeb says. “I enjoy going into work every day. My co-workers, mentor and supervisors support me and encourage me to do my best.”

Billeb says the stipulation that recipients work for a year in child welfare in Wisconsin as a way to pay back the grant and stipend has been well worth it. Billeb added that the additional child welfare courses are beneficial for graduates when they enter the workplace.

“I wanted to work in child welfare and after my year is up, I want to continue working in child welfare,” Billeb says. 

Child welfare is close to the heart of senior social work major Laichia Xiong of Eau Claire. Xiong originally planned to be an elementary school teacher but switched to social work to help children who may face struggles such as abuse, food insecurity and substance abuse. 

As a social worker, Xiong hopes to help reduce children’s stress so they can have a better educational experience.

“I want to make sure children and families are safe and healthy and can go on without struggles or hardships,” Xiong says. “Everyone has a dream, but they can't accomplish that dream if there are barriers blocking them.”

UW-Eau Claire’s child welfare grants have helped future social workers pursue their own dreams.

“Social work allows me to help people and be of service to them,” Guth says. “Being a social work major has allowed me to discover social issues, disparities in the world and how I can take an active role in being a part of a change.” 

After she graduates, Guth wants to bring resources to underserved rural communities, including resources to support children’s mental health. 

“A lot of problems could be solved by utilizing early intervention,” Guth says. “Treating and ensuring that children's mental and physical needs are met would help create a sturdy foundation for them to build their life.”