To err is human; to prevent errors, divine

Actors embrace atypical gig to help child welfare caseworkers

As a new child welfare caseworker, Jessica Gray (left) meets with client “Wilma” – actually actress Jessie Moffat. (Photos by Troye Fox.)

Smiling at the wrong time has gotten Jessica Gray into trouble before; she couldn’t stop smiling while a drill sergeant yelled at her during basic training with the Army National Guard. And now her smile, sweet as it is, is about to cause trouble during basic training of another kind –to become a child welfare caseworker in Wisconsin.

An angry “client,” 25-year-old, redheaded Wilma, storms into the room and slams the door.

“Let’s get this shit out of the way,” Wilma says angrily to Gray, her “social worker,” by way of introduction. Wilma’s enraged, on the hook for behavior that could lead to the state separating her from her children.

Gray smiles at her. “Do you mind if I sit here?” she asks Wilma quietly, eyeing a chair in the sparse room.

“Do what you want. It’s a free country,” Wilma snaps as she plunks in a nearby chair and folds her arms across her lap.

About 100 new child welfare caseworkers receive job training annually from UWM’s Helen Bader School of Social Welfare.

Still smiling, Gray tries to engage Wilma in conversation about her three children, her difficult relationship with her mother, her imprisoned husband. Wilma seems not interested. Her answers are snippy, her body language closed, as the client-social worker interview lurches uncomfortably along.

Gray, who has earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work, is in what amounts to an apprenticeship to be a Milwaukee child welfare caseworker. “Wilma” is a Milwaukeean with a theater background, whose real name is Jessie Moffat (’03 Anthropology).

The two women represent an unusual and successful partnership in which social work educators enlist the help of local actors to boost the skill level of new child welfare caseworkers. The caseworkers are clear: They are here to learn and welcome criticism, no matter how difficult it is to hear. To err may be human; but preventing errors is divine.

While medical colleges have long used actors to help students hone clinical skills, Wisconsin social work educators have only started to do the same in earnest in the past few years.

“Social workers who take the training are significantly better at determining when children are unsafe and when action needs to be taken to protect them.”
– Julie Brown, director, MCWPPD

Gray, recently hired by the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare, is one of about 100 new child welfare caseworkers annually who receive job training from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Helen Bader School of Social Welfare. The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families requires that all new caseworkers throughout the state complete job-specific training within 18 months of being hired.

The school’s Milwaukee Child Welfare Partnership for Professional Development (MCWPPD) provides the training, and has worked since 2008 with In Tandem Theatre to supply actors to play the roles of traumatized adults on the brink of losing their children.

“It’s an awesome exercise for the actors,” says Chris Flieller, In Tandem’s artistic director (’84 MFA). “They are given scenarios and they hold the ground of the character throughout the interview. I’ve never had an actor say, ‘Don’t send me anymore.’”

The social workers benefit greatly from the experience, says Julie Brown, director of the MCWPPD and the person responsible for growing the idea. “Social workers who take the training are significantly better at determining when children are unsafe and when action needs to be taken to protect them,” she says. “Their interactions with their faux clients is one particularly successful technique used in our larger training program that integrates classroom training, structured practice, immediate feedback and formal assessments.”

On this eight-hour training day in the Glendale offices of the MCWPPD, 18 future caseworkers (16 women, two men) each meet with six different “clients.” In addition to Wilma, they include Daniel, an exhausted, 38-year-old single father with limited resources and a depressed teenage son, and Diana, who is raising her three grandchildren and is frustrated with her daughter’s drug use.

When Gray is done with her client interview, the room opens up for analysis. In the room are a supervisor and two other students, in addition to the actress Moffat.

First, Gray analyzes her own performance.

“My heart was beating a thousand times a minute,” she says. “But I got you talking. And I think I had good eye contact.”

“You kept eye contact and remained calm,” says Moffat, who knows exactly what helped and what hindered her from opening up to the future caseworker. “I was uncertain of the smile.”

“I do smile when people are yelling at me,” Gray says.

“It was off-putting,” Moffat says. “Keeping your composure is great. But it was over the top. It’s hard to relate if you don’t meet me where I’m at.” She also points out what worked well. “You did a good job of repeating back to me what I had told you, and I was aware you were listening to me.”

According to Mike Kluesner, curriculum and instruction manager with MCWPPD, social workers typically believe they are good at engaging people. “But engaging people who are court-ordered to engage is different,” he says. “You have to earn trust.”

Not uncommonly, students have three out of four skills and attributes needed to succeed in the field. They are respectful of others. They genuinely want to help people. They are competent. But their success will be limited if they don’t master the fourth component: learning to talk and listen in ways that earn trust from clients, he says.

“The way you talk is as important as anything else,” he says. “This is a skill. If there is a hint of judgment in a voice, it can really affect the relationship.”

There is a lot at stake. Clients who trust that social workers are there to help them will share inner details of their lives, details that may include violent relationships, mental illness, drug abuse and child safety concerns.

“Clients also know that if a social worker is not careful with the information, the results can be devastating. It could get them killed. They could have their children taken away,” Kluesner says.

Cue the actors, who are trained to pick up on all the nuanced ways we broadcast our thoughts and feelings. Body language. Facial expressions. Language and phrasing. Tone of voice.

According to Moffat, actors are more observant than the average person. “That’s what we do. It helps us develop more believable characters.” Plus, part of their job in rehearsals is to provide helpful feedback.

Gray is glad to have the feedback. “A lot of people aren’t so up front as the actors,” she says. “It’s very helpful to know how you come off.”

Sarah Charneski, also in training, concurs. “It’s always hard to hear what you’re not good at,” she says. “But I’d rather hear it here, from actors, and be able to work at it. It’s better than learning about it in a work situation, after you’ve messed up and it’s gone to your supervisor. Here, we learn what not to say in a safe environment.” For her part, Charneski says she also needs to work on facial expressions. “I’m not good at hiding what I feel,” she says.

By the end of the training day, Moffat had left a few future child welfare caseworkers in tears. “That’s not my goal, but students often say ‘thank you’ because I helped them develop a skill,” she says.

The actors are paid $100 per day, but there are other compensations. “The work is so rewarding,” says Moffat. “It makes me grateful to see these kids have chosen to help people. It’s encouraging knowing people like them are out there trying to make a difference.”