Two people hugging on a couch while a man in a chair sits across from them.
A VCU team will receive more than $838,000 over four years from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse as part of a project to create the Child Welfare and Addiction Fellowship program. (Getty Images)

VCU to offer Virginia’s first specialized training for social workers on addiction in child welfare

Karen Chartier in the School of Social Work and her team are developing a two-year fellowship program to help assess and address substance use disorders in the setting of caregivers and children.

Share this story

The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work is launching a new fellowship program for child welfare professionals in Virginia to receive specialized training around addiction.

“As much as 68% of child welfare cases involve a caregiver with a substance use disorder, and we want social workers practicing in child welfare settings to have the latest knowledge and skills for working with families impacted by addiction,” said Karen G. Chartier, Ph.D., director of VCU’s Institute for Research on Behavioral and Emotional Health and an associate professor in the School of Social Work.

Chartier is co-leading development of the program with Rebecca Gomez, Ph.D., associate professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin. Their team has significant experience with social work education, child welfare practice and research, and addiction medicine to offer “an innovative, high-impact program,” Chartier said. The team of investigators includes professor Albert Arias, M.D., in the Department of Psychiatry at VCU’s School of Medicine; assistant professor Mer Francis, Ph.D., and assistant professor Naomi Sutton Reddish and instructor Amanda Long of VCU’s School of Social Work; and licensed clinical social worker Kristen Van de Riet of Chesterfield County.

Chartier and Gomez are expected to receive more than $838,000 over four years from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse as part of their project to create VCU’s Child Welfare and Addiction Fellowship program, which will be the first available in Virginia.

“Child welfare professionals make critical decisions about the children in their care but need more training regarding best practices for families impacted by alcohol and other substance use disorders,” Chartier said. “Enhancing the network of child welfare professionals with addictions training can make all the difference for families in Virginia and potentially long-term for the nation.”

The new two-year fellowship program will provide child welfare professionals with training, supervision and mentorship about how to assess and address substance use problems when working with children and their caregivers. The program is offered virtually to allow access to high-need areas throughout the state. The first cohort of 10 fellows will start in November.

According to data from the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health released this past January, 16.5% of the U.S. population age 12 or older meet the criteria for having a substance use disorder. Data from the same surveys in 2009-2014 found that about 1 in 8 children in the U.S. lived in a household with at least one parent who had a substance use disorder in the previous year.

“This is particularly problematic because child-welfare-involved children whose caregiver used substances are more likely to be removed from the home, and these families take longer to be reunified,” Chartier said.

The fellowship program is open to social workers who have completed a Virginia-based Title IV-E Child Welfare Stipend Program, a training program in partnership with the Virginia Department of Social Services offered at four universities including VCU. Since 2016, more than 230 individuals have graduated from Virginia’s programs – 72 from VCU, including Reddish and Van de Riet.

These programs provide undergraduate and graduate social work students with a stipend and child welfare training. For each year students receive a stipend, they commit to working for one year at a Virginia public child welfare office, primarily in foster care, adoption or family preservation in-home services.

“The potential public health impact of training child welfare professionals who have started their careers is significant, given the size of the nation’s child welfare workforce and that there are almost 150 Title IV-E programs across 35 states,” Chartier said. “Our creation of an evidence-based fellowship program has the potential to inform the development of programs that can be replicated across the country.”

Fellows will receive clinical supervision, complete training modules and participate in virtual consultation sessions with VCU experts from social work and psychiatry who can provide case-based instructional learning about alcohol and other substance use disorders in the context of child welfare.

“Enhancing Title IV-E programs with addictions training and education will better enable the child welfare workforce to protect the welfare of our nation’s most vulnerable children by increasing the number of practicing professionals educated with current and emerging information about the prevention and treatment of alcohol and other substance use disorders,” Chartier said.

Practitioners’ knowledge about substance use disorders is constantly evolving, she said, and this new program fills a need to help graduates stay up to date on the nuances of the field.

“Currently, most training available focuses on students who will be entering the child welfare workforce,” Chartier said. “Our training program will offer specialized training in addictions for young professionals who have already graduated to help them develop the combined skills necessary for success in the field of child welfare and success in intervening with substance use problems among vulnerable children and families.”

Applications are now being accepted for the fellowship’s second cohort, which is slated to begin in fall 2024. Learn more about the program by emailing