Crystal Siler is fulfilling her goals of giving back to the community in southeastern Kentucky and making a difference in the lives of children. Siler is an 18-year employee with the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services (DCBS), a state agency charged with providing programs and services to enhance the self-sufficiency of families and improve safety and permanency for children and vulnerable adults. How Siler ended up in DCBS’ Cumberland Regional Office began with the important role EKU regional campuses play in the lives of students from rural communities, and the longstanding partnership between EKU’s Training Resource Center and DCBS.
Siler is a 2001 graduate of EKU’s Public Child Welfare Certification Program (PCWCP), a unique university-public agency partnership designed to recruit, prepare and retain public child welfare workers in Kentucky. EKU’s Social Work Program is one of 11 Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) programs at Kentucky universities currently partnering with DCBS to strengthen the agency’s workforce. Students selected to participate in PCWCP receive tuition assistance and a stipend for educational expenses during their last two years of college coursework and commit to two years of employment with DCBS upon graduation.
Siler credits EKU and PCWCP with leading her to discover her career path in child welfare/social services, for which there is a critical need throughout Kentucky and the nation. “I have a passion to help,” said Siler, “and I wanted to return to my community to make a difference where I had roots.” Siler has been making a difference in the lives of others for almost two decades due in part to PCWCP’s specialized courses, training and practicum experience, where she was able to shadow and learn from DCBS employees.
Siler began her EKU education at the Corbin regional campus as an undeclared student interested in counseling. “Coming from a rural community, the Corbin campus was a great fit,” said Siler. She loved the small group setting that the Corbin campus provided. The atmosphere at the Corbin campus “really helped with the transition from high school to college.”
Siler knew she wanted to work with and support children and initially took courses in psychology. She was later introduced to social work by a friend in the EKU Social Work program. She took an introductory social work course and knew immediately it was the path for her. It was in one of her early social work courses that Siler learned about PCWCP from a professor. The program was appealing as it provided an opportunity for future employment with the public child welfare agency as well as financial assistance with college expenses. Siler was paying her own way through college and PCWCP’s tuition assistance and stipend for educational expenses were great benefits.
After taking those initial courses at the Corbin regional campus, Siler moved to the Richmond campus where she lived in Martin Hall for one year. She commuted from home her last year at EKU and finished her BSW degree through PCWCP. “I always felt at home at EKU,” said Siler.
Upon completion of her BSW degree in 2001, Siler was hired by DCBS as a Social Service Worker II in Knox County. She finished her PCWCP two-year employment commitment to DCBS and has continued on with the agency, serving in various capacities. During her career with DCBS, Siler conducted child abuse and neglect investigations, provided ongoing casework to families and children, promoted permanency for children and families, and supervised teams of employees providing services and support to those most vulnerable in our communities. Siler also participated in DCBS’ Master of Social Work Stipend Program and earned her Master of Science in Social Work degree from the University of Louisville.
In Siler’s current role as a service region administrator associate with DCBS, she is part of a regional management team based in London (Laurel County) that is leading efforts to improve the safety, permanency and well-being of Kentucky’s families and children. Siler manages various aspects of the personnel process for DCBS’ Cumberland Region, including the hiring of new staff. “PCWCP graduates are very valuable to the agency,” said Siler. They come into the agency having already completed a significant portion of their required new employee training as well as having the actual experience of working in a DCBS office during their PCWCP practicum.
Siler encouraged others to consider PCWCP. “If you are empathetic, a problem solver and ethical, PCWCP could be a good fit for you,” she said. “Try a social work class and look into PCWCP.”
Since the program’s inception in 1997, more than 1,000 students have earned their BSW degree through PCWCP. “PCWCP is a true collaboration between the public agency, the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services, and Kentucky’s higher education system, said Corrie Rice, executive director of the Training Resource Center at EKU. “With all eight state universities involved in the program, as well as three private universities, PCWCP is having a significant impact on strengthening the DCBS workforce and improving Kentucky communities with the services provided by the specially prepared employees.” According to ongoing program evaluation activities conducted by Anita Barbee of the University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work, PCWCP graduates remain employed with the agency longer. The most recent data indicates that 87 percent of PCWCP graduates complete the two-year employment commitment to DCBS, and 73 percent are still employed with the agency after three years. Nationally, average child welfare workforce turnover rates have been estimated at 20 to 40 percent.[i]
New students are accepted into PCWCP during the fall and spring semesters. For more information on PCWCP and affiliated university BSW programs, visit www.pcwcp.eku.edu or contact the statewide PCWCP administrator, Sarah Williams, firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on EKU’s PCWCP, contact Pam Black, EKU PCWCP coordinator, email@example.com.