Alex Culbreth, a graduate student in Saint Leo University's online Master of Social Work program, knows all too well how children feel when they must be removed from their homes for their own safety and well-being.

When they have been neglected or abused. When their parents use drugs, fight, or suffer from mental illness.

"I was personally involved with HRS (Florida's former Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, now the Department of Children & Families or DCF) when I was young," he says. "I was taken away from my biological mother and placed with other family members. I was also separated from my brother for 22 years. This allows me to understand the impact of separating siblings."

Now 34, Culbreth has worked with children as an early childhood specialist in daycare centers and Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) programs, as a substitute teacher in public elementary schools, and as a direct care work in group homes. During this time, he witnessed numerous occasions when children needed strong advocates but did not have them.

This personal experience, combined with the events from his childhood, is why he has committed to protecting and looking out for children as a future social worker.

Specialized study prepares child welfare professionals

Culbreth is enrolled in Saint Leo's online MSW with a concentration in advanced clinical practice – a full-time, two-year endeavor. He chose Saint Leo's program because of its excellent reputation and also because of its accreditation, since he eventually wants to attain licensure as a clinical social worker.

Culbreth was a recipient of a stipend offered through the Title IV-E Child Welfare Program and committed to a year of service in Florida's child welfare system.

Khalilah Louis, LCSW, is a graduate social work instructor at Saint Leo who teaches Methods of Social Work Practice with Individuals and Families – the first required practice course in the graduate social work curriculum. She also teaches Child Abuse & Neglect and Children's Services courses. Louis is an alumnae of the university's first MSW cohort with 13 years of child welfare experience in case management, adoptions and supervisory and training positions.

"Having been in the field, I have seen the great need for quality child welfare professionals," says Louis.

According to Louis, a graduate of any four-year college degree program typically can work in child welfare. "But clearly, social work students are better equipped to work with children and families."

At Saint Leo, students can pursue a specialized course of study in child welfare that includes two courses – Child Abuse & Neglect, which is required for all MSW students and a Children's Services elective –and a field placement at a DCF or community-based care (CBC) agency. Louis says that in addition to increasing their marketability if they desire a career in child welfare with DCF or a CBC agency after graduation, students who complete the child welfare course of study can be waived from a portion of DCF's pre-service training.

Opportunity to prepare for a challenging field

When discussing with students a potential career in child welfare, Louis is candid.

"I tell them it's a tough job. If anyone could do child welfare, the field wouldn't have such a high turnover rate. It definitely requires people who are passionate about working with this population, which is more than just children. It's working with children and families."

Culbreth understands that.

"I have a unique standpoint," he says. "I can look at situations differently since I know what kind of impact these critical decisions can make in the lives of children. Although sad, I truly would not have achieved what I have if not for the intervention of the child welfare advocates in my life."

Shaping children's futures

Culbreth is currently undecided if he will opt for a position as a dependency case manager or as a child protective investigator after completing his degree.

"After participating in internships in both of these areas, I have strong feelings toward both," he says. "I love the investigation part and getting to the root of the problem and making a determination. But I also like that in case management you can help clients work through issues and hopefully overcome them."

Either way, Culbreth hopes to be a positive influence and help the lives of children who too often fall through the cracks of an overburdened child welfare system.

"We often learn that adults who break the law have had severe negative impacts in their lives when they were children. Early positive and compassionate interventions in children's lives can change their entire course in life, hopefully diverting them to a positive outcome such as the one I am currently pursuing."

Other posts you may be interested in reading:

New Stipend Opportunities Available For Saint Leo Social Work Students

For Online MSW Student, Social Work Is 'Language Of Her Heart'

Finding Community And Collaboration Through Online MSW Program

Online MSW Degree Program Receives Professional Accreditation

Image credits: tomertu on Shutterstock, courtesy Alex Culbreth, Khalilah Louis