Serving North Dakota’s children and families

Meet Amy Oehlke and Pete Tunseth from UND’s Children & Family Services Training Center, which trains North Dakota’s social services workers

Amy Oehlke is the new director of the UND Children & Family Services Training Center. She succeeds Pete Tunseth, who served as director from 1989 to February of this year. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

The UND Children & Family Services Training Center has been for training all welfare social services workers in the State of North Dakota since 1987.

Amy Oehlke, staff member at the UND Children & Family Services Training Center since 2012, has been named director of the Center after the retirement of Pete Tunseth, who joined the Center in 1989. He served as director from 2002 to February of this year, and stayed on temporarily to help Oehlke with consulting and grant-writing. Oehlke and Tunseth were preceded by two other directors, Roger Johnson and Tara Muhlhauser.

Following is a visit with both Oehlke and Tunseth, who discussed how the CFTSC serves the state and its residents.

Tell us about the Center.

Pete Tunseth: The Training Center started in 1984 as a partnership between the social work department at the University and the Children and Family Services Division at the State of North Dakota. It started as a brainchild between Ken Dawes, who was the UND social work chair, and Don Schmid, who was the director of the Children and Family Services Division at the time.

The heart of the training center, at least since 1987, has been the child welfare certification program, and any practitioner in the public child welfare system is required to go through that program. Many of our private nonprofit agencies also send folks through the training.

The Training Center was pretty unique at the time it started, because there were really not partnerships between universities and state offices to deliver training for child welfare. Today, between half and two-thirds of the states now have a similar arrangement with their university. It was groundbreaking at the time, pretty cutting edge. And it was really designed to make sure that there was more consistent training and education opportunities for child welfare practitioners.

Later on, we added the components of training and teaching our foster and adoptive parents. We are responsible for facilitating the initial training for foster parents, as well as providing ongoing opportunities for those key people in our system. The primary focus has been making sure that our child welfare practitioners – primarily social workers, family service specialists, foster parents and other related service providers – are prepared to do their job to work with children and families.

Pete Tunseth, former director of the UND Children & Family Services Training Center, chats with Amy Oehlke, the center’s current director. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

What does the Center do?

Amy Oehlke: We provide  essential training to the child welfare field to include both child welfare practitioners and foster parents.  We serve as a resource center for child welfare training activities and provide consultation to other child welfare related agencies across the state. We also partner to provide services with our Children & Family Services Division as we participate in various task forces and assist with policy writing.

So much has been impacted this last year in regards to our role with the Children & Family Services Division. We conducted training for close to 400 people on our newly implemented Safety Framework Practice Model. As far as we know, this new model of practice had never been trained virtually in other jurisdictions, so the pandemic gave us an opportunity to do something that had never been done before. The implementation of this new model has provided us with a number of new roles and exciting opportunities to partner with those in direct practice as well as connect at a more intense level with our CFS Division. It’s exciting to be a part of an agency that’s viewed so positively within the field, and I attribute much of that to Pete’s work over the years.

Tell us how the Center serves the state.

Pete Tunseth: Our whole mission and our funding is to serve North Dakota and its residents. We certify every child welfare worker who works for the state. We facilitate the initial training for every foster and special needs adoptive parent in the state, so that they can actually carry out those responsibilities.

We’re also charged with helping develop those workers over time and helping their agencies do their work better. I think one of the things that, for me, has probably been one of the most – I don’t know if satisfying is the right word – but certainly vital in terms of strengthening how we support and train our supervisors. For a long time, we did that piece on very much a shoestring budget. Now, we’ve got a pretty comprehensive approach to doing that, both in terms of how we prepare them, and how we’re supporting them in this new practice model.

If you understand how most successful child welfare programs operate, much of the key to success is how supervisors are able to support their workers and maintain good practice.

Amy Oehlke: I see providing these components of training to our child welfare practitioners as an impactful service in North Dakota. We provide the foundation for the child welfare workforce to really launch into their practice, all while holding fidelity to our practice model and our wraparound philosophy to provide the best to children and families.

We work to provide both ongoing training and consultation to ensure workers have the knowledge to do their work, day in and day out.

We also have a wonderful new component to our grants for the recruitment of potential foster parents that also includes efforts for retention of our current foster homes. Our new recruitment and retention specialist works with our child welfare partners to identify and recruit new foster homes as well as work to support those that are already providing foster care across the state.

Pete Tunseth directed the UND Children & Family Services Training Center from 1989 to February of this year. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

How do you train child welfare workers and others? Do you travel to them? Do they travel with you? Is it video training?

Amy Oehlke: Yes, yes, and yes. Prior to the pandemic, we certainly traveled across the state to provide face to face interactive training. Our child welfare certification program has always been held in Grand Forks. Many of our other trainings have been held across the state. Some we have rotated from east to west while others have been held primarily in Bismarck.

This year, of course, has been very different. We have had to transition all of our trainings, some with a quick turnaround, to be delivered online.

What do you see for the Center’s future?

Amy Oehlke: Our new Safety Framework Practice Model has basically re-established how we determine if a child is safe or unsafe. We now have defined  criteria to walk through to establish if we should intervene within that child’s family or not. This new safety model was set in place to assist in overall consistency of practice across the state and to better serve the families we should be serving.

There are newly implemented tools where the workforce is able to use their clinical judgments along with the framework to conclude what level, if any, of involvement is necessary. Practice in North Dakota has always been strengths-based, but now we have a wonderful way of identifying and building upon a parent/caregiver’s protective capacities, which opens a whole new level of family assessment.

The training on this model for implementation consumed much of what we tackled this last year and will continue to be one of our main focuses for ongoing training in the next few years for sure. This has been a huge transition for the child welfare field, including the Training Center.

Pete Tunseth: I just would add that this is a journey. And probably one of the things that I’m going to miss most is to see this through, because it’s the kind of thing that we’ve talked through for the last 10 years. It’s been an incredibly strenuous lift for everyone at the training center to get here. The staff at the Training Center have done an incredible job in helping transform our system.

It has been just incredibly exciting to see this happen. What gratifies me is that we’re going to see our folks out in the field, focused on the things that they’re good at, and doing the things that they’re trained to do. They’re going to be working with children and families to effect change in their lives.

I’ve always felt like what I wanted us to be doing at the training center was to be focused on the lives of folks that our system serves. And the best way we can do that is to really focus on those people who are providing those services directly, treat them with a lot of respect. I know that Amy definitely does the same thing. She’s one of the best cheerleaders I know.

Amy Oehlke: I see CFSTC continuing to have an impactful role within child welfare practice. The relationship we have with our CFS Division and child welfare partners has always been strong, but this last year with the impact of the pandemic along with the implementation of a new practice model has pushed us to a new level of engagement that really excites me.

I see many different doors continuing to open for new opportunities where we can continue to partner with those across the state in child welfare in new and innovative ways.