SJR Column: Residential Simulation Lab, November 2015

According to its vision statement, the Springfield campus of the University of Illinois is dedicated to offering innovative educational programs that “… make a difference in the world.” That admirable ambition lies at the heart of a new program coming to life this year in a small, long-vacant house on the UIS campus that formerly housed the campus credit union.

Thanks to the creativity and expertise of Dr. Betsy Goulet, a faculty member in the Department of Public Administration who specializes in child advocacy and protection, the house has been transformed into a Residential Simulation Laboratory, part of the new UIS Child Advocacy Studies program.

In 2014, there were 231,536 calls to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Hotline. From those calls, nearly 27,000 children in our state, 47% under five years of age, were confirmed as victims of child abuse and neglect. Here in Sangamon County, 845 children were confirmed cases during that same year. For each of those children and thousands more like them, a competent DCFS child protection investigator represents their best, and sometimes only, chance for a better and safer life.

These Illinois statistics and Dr. Goulet’s personal experience as a child abuse investigator and later a leader in the field of children’s advocacy led to her conviction that simulation training could be an essential element in the improvement of professional preparation for child protection workers. According to Dr. Goulet, research has shown that only 10-15% of content transfers from the classroom to the workplace. Classroom experience just isn’t enough to ensure competence. Thus, the Child Advocacy Studies program (CAST) and its Residential Simulation Lab was born.

In addition to three core courses that provide content related to child maltreatment and child advocacy, the CAST program provides a hands-on laboratory for frontline professionals and students where they can gain experience and practice in the skills needed for effective intervention in child abuse and neglect. Simulation training, based on real child abuse cases and enacted in a mock home setting (the simulation lab), allows trainees to practice their knowledge and skills in a supportive environment where mistakes can be observed and corrected before investigators are actually in the field. Cameras throughout the residence capture enacted scenarios for real time observation and later debriefing. The goal is to increase both confidence and competency and to ultimately improve crisis intervention, investigations and referral of services for at-risk families.

The new program is driven in part by Illinois Senate Bill 653 – recently passed legislation that restructured training for child protection investigators and supervisors to include an experiential training component. Through an agreement between DCFS and UIS, a Child Protection Training Academy has been established to provide professional development for hundreds of child protection investigators and their supervisors from across the state. A professional certificate in Child Advocacy Studies, which includes three online courses certified by the National Child Protection Training Center and simulation training in the Residential Simulation Lab, will be awarded upon program completion.

At the same time the CAST program will provide training for current child protection investigators, the Child Advocacy Studies certificate is also open to UIS degree-seeking students. Students majoring in Psychology, Public Administration, Social Work, Criminal Justice, Teacher Education and Legal Studies are already taking advantage of the coursework to supplement their major, acquiring knowledge and skills that in a very practical way increase their competence and make them more marketable for future professional opportunities.

“We are really coming at this because of our own experiences in the field,” says Dr. Goulet.

“Child protection workers are often put into tough encounters. Simulations are a valuable opportunity to step into the role and experience the twists and turns that might occur; without the risk that comes with the real thing.”

Feedback from participants in the new program has been exceedingly positive.  One student pursuing the certificate in Child Advocacy Studies remarked:

“Knowledge is power and I feel that my knowledge has grown exponentially in this program. Having the ability to practice doing investigations will make better child protection investigators.”

As the program grows, Dr. Goulet anticipates that the UIS Residential Simulation Lab may also be used to provide training for police officers, health care workers and attorneys – professionals who also play important roles in child protection.

A fundraiser to provide support for the new simulation lab will be held Thursday, November 19 from 5:00 – 7:00 P.M. at the Firefighter’s Postal Lake Club at 940 West Lake Shore Drive in Springfield. If you’d like to learn more about this innovative program and “make a difference” in the world of child abuse and neglect, I hope you’ll join us.

Chancellor Susan J. Koch