Social work student's mission: Help homeless and single dads
With interests in education, helping youth and human services, Taunya Rutenbeck chose to major in social work at Wichita State University.
“Social work seemed like a good way to include all of them,” she said.
In 1974, Rutenbeck was preparing for a career in nursing, but after taking an Introduction to Social Work course, she changed her focus years later.
She said the mission of social work is to be involved in a person’s life to make a positive change.
The School of Social Work at WSU prepared her to assist people within many different areas of need, she said. Having skills to work with a diverse group of people is useful in urban areas like Wichita.
“(The program) really helps you go out and practically apply what you’ve learned to individuals in the community,” she said.
Brien Bolin, associate professor and MSW program coordinator for the school of social work, said Rutenbeck is a standout student.
“If there is a challenging issue, she will tackle that issue head on,” he said. “She is diplomatic in her approach to solving problems.”
“When Taunya identifies a social injustice, she just doesn’t talk about how it is unjust, she works toward change,” said Sabrina Perez Glatt, director of field practicum in the school of social work at WSU.
Rutenbeck focused on single fathers for her graduate internship at Youthville, a nonprofit child welfare agency in Kansas, where she volunteered 700 hours during her master’s studies.
“I was doing some research on the growing trend of single fathers in America (at the time),” she said.
She wanted to know what Youthville offered single dads, and she found out it wasn’t much.
As a result of her research, Youthville adopted a program called “Dads Dare to Care,” an initiative to help fathers gain custody of their children.
Five fathers who had successfully reintegrated with their children participated in her focus group. These fathers were from all walks of life, she said.
“They wanted to be a part of a fatherhood program at Youthville to help other fathers navigate the child welfare system,” she said.
The paperwork people must work through in the system is daunting and difficult. In the current policy, she said, paternal rights are not investigated thoroughly.
“Fathers may be unaware that their child is going into foster care (because of the mother),” Rutenbeck said.
Society is geared toward the mother as the primary caregiver, she said. The nurturing is mom’s responsibility while dad is “out there working.”
But the rates of single fathers are growing, and she said, “There isn’t much support for single fathers in society.”
She thinks there needs to be more to help dads.
Youthville is working with dads in the system who are trying to gain custody of their children, and Rutenbeck would like to see that initiative go across the nation.
“Taunya is working toward an unfortunate bias against fathers as being capable in their abilities to be the single parent, while children languish in foster care,” Glatt said.
Rutenbeck and Brandon Jacobs, her partner and employee at Youthville, presented their work at the Kansas Fatherhood Summit.
Therapists and other child welfare agencies have contacted them to learn how to do what they started at Youthville. Even prison representatives wanted more information.
“(Prison fathers) can add to their children’s lives,” Rutenbeck said. And having contact contributes to the father’s desire to stay out of the prison system in the future.
Another at-risk group she plans to work with after graduation is the homeless youth in Wichita.
When kids age out of the system, or they are emancipated, they have nothing, she said.
“Imagine yourself at 18, and totally on your own, coming from a dysfunctional home with abuse, and you don’t have anywhere to go,” she said.
Many teens have lost their trust in adults and in the system, she said.
“These kids tend to stay on the streets because, if they’ve come from an abusive home environment, they don’t want to go back to it,” she said.
Rutenbeck has learned that many people don’t realize how bad the problem is in Wichita because the community is much smaller than Chicago or New York.
Some people see these kids as victims, but others want them to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” she said.
“We’ve all had a helping hand. It takes a village to raise a child,” she said.
Rutenbeck has worked with Habitat for Humanity and with disaster relief with the American Red Cross during Hurricane Wilma in Florida and the flooding in southern Kansas.
Rutenbeck was also the president of the Social Work Club on campus, as an undergrad and graduate student.
She said she continuously advocates for social work. She even arranged for Mayor Carl Brewer to speak at a WSU social work event.
Rutenbeck graduated with a bachelor’s of social work in 2008. She graduates in May 2009 with her master’s of social work.
Glatt said, “I am proud as a social worker, to call her my colleague.”