Social Worker Spotlight: Cornell Davis III on Misperceptions About the Child Welfare Field

Social worker Cornell Davis III, MSW, is director of children services at Christ’s Home, a center in Warminster, Pennsylvania, where he and his staff work with youth who are placed in group homes until they are able to return to family homes. In addition to ensuring that his team maintains contractual commitments to several counties, Davis helps to enforce quality care and connects with community stakeholders.

Davis, Southeast division chair of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, sat down with to discuss his experiences in more than eight years as a child welfare social worker.

What made you decide to become a child welfare social worker?

I don’t know if I chose it. That’s a very interesting way to put it. I feel like social work, in a sense, kind of chose me. Social work is a unique blend of all of the things that make me who I am. Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I was raised in a home where my parents were very involved in the community and social work has always had a very community-based feel for me. In terms of the child welfare and adoption piece, I’ve always worked in the community with children and youth. I know what that meant to have people who came into our lives to help with the adolescent years – having activities to do, having a safe space to grow up and having a family. 

When I say “family,” I don’t necessarily mean biological. Having a family is when you can depend on, and belong to, others and have a place where you can go and call home. I’ve gotten the chance to help facilitate that for a number of youth and families.

Were there any courses or lessons that stood out to you that impact your daily work? 

The top three or four for me were a few courses on policy. When you’re working with an individual client, that’s like going through the pet store and you see the one fish in the tank that you like, so you can focus on that one fish. Policy is the study of the tank light and the whole system that the fish lives in. Policy courses helped me to understand that there’s more to this picture than just the one client or even the family. Policy lessons taught me to look at the system in which they’re living and trying to survive.

Another class that helped me was research, which included program evaluation. One of my favorite teachers introduced me to program evaluation and that changed my life because that’s where I realized you can actually do something on purpose. That is, you can have a focus with your programs and the services that you are trying to carry out for clients, and you can shape the services and improve them based on your ability to evaluate.

Some of the more clinical type classes were child psychopathology where you learn what makes a child tick and then what causes them to go off their developmental curve, whether that’s environment or some genetic predisposition, and a class in trauma, which can lead to severe mental health issues. 

What does a child welfare social worker do? 

In Pennsylvania, a majority of the child welfare professionals are social workers, and that’s great in terms of having the training and the ability to navigate such a complex system and complex issues with clients. But child welfare social work is layered. The movies really don’t do justice to the field. The image most people think of is probably social workers taking kids out of their home, but the main thing they do is they help a lot of families in their community. Many people don’t see the social workers in the home with mom, dad, the grandparents, the uncle or whomever, putting services in place to keep that family intact.

The public doesn’t see the wraparound services that are bringing therapy into the home and helping the family work through issues. They don’t see all of the coordination and the collaboration behind the scenes between the juvenile justice system, child welfare system and mental health system.

There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes before you ever see a child taken from the home. When it does happen, people don’t see that everybody then is on a clock to get that child back to a safe place, which could be reunification with their family. Everybody is working to get mom and dad a stable job or housing.

What are some of the biggest challenges in your role?

Sometimes every system has its own philosophical bent. Social workers are saying, “Hey, client first.” The court system is saying, “OK, yeah, client first, but we have to adhere to these rules.”  Then the social workers say, “Yeah, we want to adhere to the rules, but there’s some other things going on in the environment of the client.” And the court’s saying, “Oh yeah, I hear you, but we’ve got to adhere to the rules.” Everybody has their own perspective on what is actually in the best interest of the child, of the family, et cetera, so sometimes the biggest challenge is for the different systems to find a way to achieve the same goal. 

Do you have job experiences that were particularly rewarding? 

I do. This probably dates back a bit, but my favorite part of the job is watching different resources be brought into clients’ lives that wouldn’t otherwise be there. I’ll give you an example. We had a consultant come in, and it really helped me. This person was an older social worker, who had had been through all of the ups and downs of the field. The consultant helped us build a program where we were able to invite fathers and become a father-friendly agency. That was hopeful for me because in child welfare, I don’t think fathers are fully pursued as a resource for their children in the system. Having an expert show us how to transform the system and the organization helped us to change our mindset. We started to say: “Fathers are a huge part of their children’s lives, even if they’re not living in the home. We can’t count them out.” 

That was a memorable part of the last several years of my work – recognizing that there are places that you can grow. There are ways that you can transform the services that you’re already providing to enhance them and to have a further reach for your clients. 

What advice would you give someone who wants to become a social worker?

Be willing to fail because you’re not going to do the work perfectly. But, whatever you do, be committed to that direction. Pick a direction, go in that direction, whether it’s child welfare or hospital social work or school social work or maybe you want to follow a clinical track. Pick the direction you want to go in and don’t be afraid to fail. Just jump in with both feet. There’s plenty of people who are willing to supervise you, who want to see you succeed, and who want to mentor you.

The second thing I would recommend is to find a mentor. You need somebody who has made their own mistakes and will share those with you and advise you.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.