Judy Tudor had been driving up and down Bonanza Road in Las Vegas dozens of times searching for an apartment building with a white cross. Find the cross, find the mother, she thought.
Tudor, then a new case worker in child welfare, was trying to help a 10-year-old boy. He was loyal to his mother and having a hard time in foster care. He didn’t like the idea of living, along with his siblings, with a new family. She sent letters to the mother’s last known address. No answer. She called. No answer. But the boy was adamant that his mom was in the building with the white cross.
Two years later, Tudor was driving on Bonanza Road. There it was. A white fleur de lys on the side of an apartment building.
By that time, the boy had already been placed with a new family. Tudor said the mother was still missing when he found a new home. She doesn’t think the two ever reconnected.
“If I would have put him in the car with me and drove up and down looking, maybe he would have seen that,” said Tudor. “I don’t know that he would have been able to return to his mom. Maybe he would have been able to have a conversation with her. Maybe she would have been able to give him permission to be with another family.”
Tudor has worked in child welfare for more than 20 years but it’s this incident she always reflects upon. And one she often shares as a training specialist in the UNLV School of Social Work at the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs. Tudor, along with Toni Chance, also a child welfare training specialist in the School of Social Work, helps those new to the child welfare field avoid as many of those “If only I had” moments as they can.
“One of the biggest indicators of whether or not child will achieve permanency is whether or not the caseworkers believe the kid can achieve permanency,” Tudor tells them. “Kids will tell you things that seem like a long shot, but you have to relentlessly, and with urgency, pursue those things. You never know if that is going to be the thing that leads to a home or just finding those people they feel connected to.”
Training for the Unexpected
For more than 10 years, the UNLV School of Social Work has collaborated in the Nevada Partnership for Training, a statewide consortium of family service agencies. In Southern Nevada, UNLV partners with Clark County Department of Family Services to deliver skill-based programs for professionals who work with children and families.
Supervisors and staff in DFS take courses taught by Tudor and Chance. Under the partnership, UNLV has developed courses geared specifically for DFS staff. The coursework adds depth in working with people dealing with trauma, mental health addictions, and domestic violence, as well as LGTBQ youth, who are at high risk for becoming homeless.
They also run the Nevada Child Welfare Training Academy, a 12-week program required for new DFS employees. DFS staff provide agency-specific information while Tudor and Chance walk students through mock cases from beginning to end — sharing personal experiences such as Tudor’s search for the white cross. They teach participants how to approach families, connect with kids, manage their time, and cope with the emotionally difficult situations. They also prepare them to expect the unexpected when finding homes for children, reunifying families, and helping parents through the adoption process.
Social work is a high growth field offering plenty of jobs, said Joanne Thomspon, director of the UNLV School of Social Work. On any given day in Clark County, there are approximately 3,200 children in DFS custody and are living outside their homes, according agency statistics.
With a high demand for social workers nationwide, Clark County DFS wants to ensure its hires receive education that will help them succeed. Trainees have varied work and life experiences. Some hold degrees in social work, while others are shifting careers. Some have previous government or nonprofit experience.
“The role of protecting our most vulnerable children is one that can’t be done alone,” said Michael Knight, assistant director of Clark County DFS. “As one of (our) valued community partners, UNLV has been instrumental in ensuring that our employees get the best possible training. Not only do they work with the department to ensure child welfare staff receive the most cutting edge information, they are equally as concerned in the way staff learn that information, and have worked with the department to develop training materials that mirror real-life child welfare situations.”
Help, Not Judgement
This summer, Mariyah Fincher, ’13 BA Sociology, was among 40 new DFS employees in the academy. “Growing up, I was never in foster care but I didn’t have a stable place to live until I got to high school. Between 6 years old and 13, I bounced from family member to family member,” she said. Now she’s the one trying to help kids find a stable home.
The academy training added depth to what she’d learned as an undergraduate and her experiences working at the UNLV/CSUN preschool and at an after-school program, Fincher said.
“I learned the difference between an adult as a parent and an adult as a person. In the training, we deciphered how a parent grew up and learned where the parent’s style of parenting comes from,” Fincher said. “I learned how to be empathetic with the family, how to be honest without making it seem like they’re under interrogation, how to communicate and what questions to ask, what to observe when we talk to them. I think that will help tremendously when we are in the field.”
Tudor said she stresses to trainees the importance of withholding judgment or placing blame when meeting with clients.
“If you come at it with that mindset, then that can open your mind to be able to ask questions to better understand what’s going rather than just looking at the report or scene you come upon,” Tudor said.
Carlos Lopez, a Master of Social Work student at UNLV, is a family services specialist working on cases involving child abuse and neglect. Lopez said he valued learning from Tudor and Chance, who have close to 50 years of experience in child welfare work combined.
“When you deal with people it’s all about engagement. That helped me a lot,” said Lopez, 37. “Children are a neglected population and they really don’t have a voice. This is a population that needs someone to help them out and give them that voice.”