It should come as no surprise that when Dr. Justin “Jay” Miller (pictured at left) took over the University of Kentucky College of Social Work in 2019 as the youngest social work school dean in the country, he would bring some fresh ideas about social work education and research. And they went way beyond tweaking the curriculum.
Helping Children and Their Families
Since family and child welfare is the largest single area of social work—and a major passion for former Kentucky Child Protective Services investigator Miller—it seemed a good place to start. In March 2020 the College of Social Work launched the Kentucky Kinship Resource Center (KKRC). Kentucky leads the country in the number of kinship care providers—who are mostly grandparents, Miller says. “And I see it as part of actualizing our mission, being child welfare or any other area, to be responsive to the challenges that are in our immediate space.”
KKRC led with KY KINS (Kinship Information, Navigation and Support), where “peer supporters”—people who are doing kinship care themselves—regularly meet with other kinship caregivers to “help them navigate the kinship journey,” says Sheila L. Rentfrow (pictured at left), the college’s Kentucky Kinship Program coordinator. And they definitely need the support, adds recent MSW graduate Theodora Triplis, who did her practicum with KKRC.
“Unlike foster care, where you go through training and know what you’re getting into, kinship care happens overnight. You get a call—‘Hey, your grandchild needs to be taken out of their home.Would you like to accept this child into your home?’”
KKRC offers additional support through KIN VIP (Virtual Interaction Program), which links kinship caregivers from all over Kentucky through Zoom sessions to talk about their struggles, share ideas and recommend resources such as food, clothing and financial aid. And KKRC’s Kinship Catalogue supplies kinship caregivers with information through 15-minute online training modules and hourlong monthly live webinars by experts on subjects like formal adoption, financial planning and handling discipline with kinship children. The webinars, which include Q&A sessions, are often recorded and made available in an online library.
At KKRC, Triplis, a former math teacher, centered her practicum around data analysis. She helped create an infographic, drawn from a survey of 90 Kentucky kinship caregivers about the KY KINS peer supporter program. It illustrates statistics like average age of caregivers (48) and average time caregivers have cared for kinship children (2.3 years). Triplis also helped put together a survey asking state Child Protective Services workers in four different service regions whether they’d heard of KY KINS, and if so, whether they thought that families had received the resources and support they needed.
To further improve child welfare in Kentucky, Dean Miller, as part of an “e-service initiative,” brought virtual reality technology to the college. It’s been used to simulate child welfare investigations and interactions “to make sure folks are as prepared as possible,” he says. Both students and practitioners are involved in ongoing testing and retesting of scenarios.
Helping Social Workers Help Themselves
But how can social workers help children and families if they haven’t first taken care of themselves? Enter another of Miller’s passions: the Self Care Lab.
The Self Care Lab has three main current initiatives, all dedicated to “research and training for any and all who are working in helping professions—social workers, nurses, law enforcement, educators, even foster parents,” says Melissa Segress, director of centers and labs at the College of Social Work. The initiatives are:
This program is “designed to address cultural nuances and the differences in self-care practices in different countries around the world,” Segress says. Partnerships have been established with organizations in some 19 countries, most recently Slovakia and the U.K.
COVID-19’s impact on self-care
Naturally a lot of research was done at the Self Care Lab on the impact of lockdowns and other stressors during the pandemic, but data continues to build in its aftermath. “For example,” says Segress, “we’ve all learned to be more mobile in terms of our work environment—to be able to be on Zoom and work from home—[but that] increases the temptation of being constantly available in terms of work, and that’s impacted self-care.”
Helping individual practitioners with their self-care is one thing, but the lab also went bigger, with organizational self-care. Through the methodological process of concept mapping, championed by Miller, researchers have been able to uncover roadblocks to organizational wellness in Kentucky government agencies.
Beyond child care and self-care, the college’s centers and labs encompass areas like military social work and suicide prevention. And the fact that the research, service and consultation all take place within the centers and labs, says Segress, “allows us to do the research, analyze it, and then come right around and put it in the field.”